The problem of homelessness is the issue dominating the City Council race in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Stephanie Martinez, 44, came to Bangor on a bus from Texas in 2005. Her father kicked her out of the family home after she had attempted suicide, she said.

Today, she’s staying at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, but works at a department store.

Homelessness is dominating the attention of Bangor City Council candidates this fall, and the topic has become a polarizing one recently as residents, the planning board and City Council opposed a proposal to officially allow shelters in city zones meant for government and institutional buildings.

As homelessness has dominated city debates, Martinez and others without homes say the discussion often treats them as a monolith.

“We all have stories,” Martinez said. “We all have a reason why we’re here.”

Stephanie Martinez, 44, is currently living in the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter while working and trying to establish herself.  Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

There are likely more unsheltered homeless residents in Bangor now than there ever have been, said Boyd Kronholm, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. Given the gravity of the situation, he was not surprised it had taken up so much space at the political level.

“It is something that needs to be dealt with,” Kronholm said.

With the issue becoming more visible in recent years due to the pandemic and an influx of new homeless residents who are pushed to the street because they can’t find available shelter beds, it is no surprise that it would come up during an election, said Bangor Community Services Program Manager Rindy Fogler, who works closely with the city’s homeless population.

She noted that numerous people come to Bangor because it is a service hub. Other nearby towns and cities do not have shelters of their own, though there is increasing discussion from political leaders and those who work with the homeless to address homelessness regionally.

Boyd Kronholm is the executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter on Main Street. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Kronholm said the stigma around the problem needed to be reduced. He pointed to recent planning board meetings where residents, many of whom lived close to where homeless residents regularly congregate, railed against the policy to officially allow homeless shelters in city zones meant for government and institutional buildings.

Often lost in the mix are the voices of homeless residents themselves. Though some groups, such as the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition, have made a point of including their perspectives when speaking to the City Council, most Bangor residents do not have extensive interaction with the city’s homeless population.

Moving to Bangor in 1968, Teresa Morancie, 59, said she became homeless in 2019 after a fire at her family home.

It can be hard for those who haven’t experienced homelessness to understand what it’s like, said Morancie, who’s also staying at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. Having spent most of her life with stable housing, she said finding herself without it had opened her eyes to the issue.

“I went to the waterfront and never saw a homeless person — never recognized it,” Morancie said.

Teresa Morancie, 59, who lives at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, will start looking for an apartment after receiving a housing voucher this week. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The discourse around the problem can also include misinformation. Both Kronholm and Fogler said they had often heard people say that nearly all homeless residents were coming from outside of Maine.

It was a line repeated by some City Council candidates in interviews and statements. Yet, on-the-ground numbers show that they make up a small minority of people staying in local homeless shelters.

The majority of residents (52 percent) who identified where they were from and stayed at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Hope House between July 2020 and June 2021 were from Maine but not Bangor proper, according to Maine State Housing Authority data.

Another 39 percent were from Bangor and 9 percent were from out-of-state. A total of 641 people stayed in those shelters during that time, 90 of whom did not report where they were from.

The belief that homeless residents were largely coming from outside of Maine could be prevalent because people don’t want to recognize that so many people in the Bangor region could be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, Kronholm said.

“Sometimes, it’s much easier to say that these people are being dropped here from other places,” he said.

Noting that homelessness was a problem in communities across the country, especially those with warmer climates, the issue brings emotional, yet often disparate, responses, said Sandra Butler, a professor of social work at the University of Maine.

The sight of a homeless resident sleeping in public can bring to mind topics from the lack of affordable housing to the effects of the opioid epidemic, as well as significant economic inequality.

Teresa Morancie, 59, who lives at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, talks about her experience with homelessness on Wednesday. Executive Director Boyd Kronholm is at left. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

But many also find public sights of homelessness distasteful, seeing it as a sign of poor personal decisions, especially related to drugs. They are unaware of how problems with domestic abuse and health care can land someone on the street, Butler said.

“If you don’t have that kind of understanding, and see it in places you love, like walking along the Penobscot River, there’s a sense that these people shouldn’t be there,” she said.

After 2 1/2 years of homelessness, Morancie’s situation will likely soon change. She received a housing voucher on Monday and has begun looking at apartments.

“It’s been hard, but I learned a lot and I am so blessed,” Morancie said. “I’m ready to go out, though.”