The Hope House Health and Living Center on Corporate Drive in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A Bangor homeless shelter plans to grow its number of beds to compensate for the loss of beds when a local hotel stops serving as a homeless shelter at the end of the year.

The proposal would expand the number of beds at the Hope House shelter on Corporate Drive from 30 to 43 using portable sleeping barriers within the existing facility. The reconfiguration would allow additional beds at the facility while keeping COVID-19 protocols in place, said Kate Carlisle, spokesperson for Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs the shelter.

The changes will occur between Nov. 1 and early December, she said.

City officials hope that the expanded capacity could help prevent new encampments when the Ramada Inn shelter on Odlin Road runs out of funding in December.

The plan incorporates lessons learned during the pandemic from using the Ramada as a shelter, namely that outcomes are best for homeless individuals when they are afforded more privacy, Carlisle said. Advocates in Bangor and nationwide have long said that such conditions create a higher likelihood that homeless residents will be able to transition to stable housing.  

“Our plan to move guests out of the Ramada is necessarily part of a larger plan to change our shelter set-up and make it safer and centered on our guests’ needs,” Carlisle said.

The Ramada reduced its capacity beginning on Oct. 1 in preparation for the complete depopulation by New Year’s Eve, going from 60 to 52 shelter rooms and from 40 to 20 quarantine and isolation rooms. While the goal is to transition all of those staying at the Ramada into stable housing, that is unlikely under current affordable housing conditions, Bangor’s interim city manager, Debbie Laurie, said in a memo to the City Council.

The lack of affordable housing is leading to an increasing number of homeless people living in parks and other open spaces in the city and near businesses and residential areas, Laurie said.

“The homelessness response system is designed to move an individual through the process into housing,” Laurie said. “When housing isn’t available, the system isn’t able to function.”

The number of people living in encampments across Bangor has grown since the pandemic began, Laurie said. While city ordinances prohibit camping in public parks, she said recent court cases might prohibit the city from banning camping if people have no alternative shelter.

Hope House management is also examining recent U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that would allow the shelter to increase its number of beds to 50 with a pooled testing program, Laurie said.

The Ramada has been a lifeline for the city’s homeless population as existing shelters had to reduce their capacity during the pandemic to allow for social distancing. The hotel began serving exclusively as a shelter in September 2020.

The number of beds in shelters across the city have declined by more than one-third since the start of the pandemic, according to city council documents. The Hope House lost more than half its beds, going from 66 to 30, while the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter went from 37 to 32. The Shaw House, which primarily serves young people, remains at 18 beds.

Under the new proposal, beds at the Hope House would still be down by 23 from pre-pandemic levels.

But the consolidation of the shelter’s two sites into one would allow the Hope House to streamline its processes and focus on its mission of transitioning people to stable housing, according to Laurie. The shelter is understaffed. There are 15-16 full-time employees when there should be 37, city documents said.

MaineHousing leases the Ramada using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, then contracts with Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor to run the Ramada as an extension of its Hope House shelter.

Of the 551 people who stayed at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Hope House from July 2020 to June 2021 and reported where they were from, 52 percent were from Maine but not Bangor, 39 percent were from Bangor and 9 percent were from outside of Maine, according to MaineHousing documents. About 90 people didn’t report where they were from.

The Bangor City Council will discuss the proposal, as well as the extension of FEMA funding for the Ramada through Dec. 31, in a workshop meeting on Wednesday.