City of Bangor employees were cleaning the homeless encampment behind the Hope House in Bangor Tuesday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

City of Bangor employees began cleaning up an encampment of homeless residents on Cleveland Street on Tuesday, a step toward helping those residents plan for a safe living situation during the cold winter months.

The employees picked up piles of trash around the encampment — which is located behind the Hope House shelter and contains several tents — in a cleanup that is estimated to cost around $2,000. The city will be back in a week, offering the help of caseworkers who can connect homeless residents with safe places to spend the cold months.

Tuesday’s cleanup came a week after an election in which Bangor’s lack of affordable housing and its homeless population was the central issue addressed by City Council candidates.

It also happened as the city’s homeless population has grown and as the shelter services available to them are changing.

Bangor’s Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

There are about 170 residents living outside in Bangor this fall that the city is aware of by name, Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell said. That’s a significant increase from the 30-40 it knew of in previous years.

And come the end of the year, one less source of shelter will be available to them as the Ramada Inn hotel, which has served exclusively as a shelter since last year, prepares to close at the end of December when its federal funding ends.

In an effort to partially offset that loss, the Hope House, run by Penobscot Community Health Care, is expanding to include 43 beds, up from its current 30. But shelter capacity as a whole in Bangor has been reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic so shelters can allow for social distancing.

Most of what workers took from the encampment Tuesday was clearly trash — everything from mattresses to shopping carts to abandoned tents. They made sure not to take personal property. Residents living at the encampment could be seen in and around their camps on Tuesday morning.

Piles of trash litter a homeless encampment in the wooded area behind the Hope House in Bangor. City of Bangor employees from Public Works and Parks and Recreation were on site cleaning the area Tuesday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Caseworkers and navigators will continue the work at the site next week, on Nov. 16, making sure that trash has been removed and people living at the encampment have a safe living situation for the winter, O’Donnell said.

No one will be asked to leave the encampments at that time, she said.

However, caseworkers can connect homeless residents to resources to help them find a spot in a shelter or another living situation. Bangor officials often make efforts to reduce the number of residents at encampments as the weather gets colder, knowing that risks become more severe for homeless residents during the winter.

“We’re really just helping them to make plans for the winter months, and to clean up the campsites so they’re as safe as possible when winter snow and ice is upon us,” O’Donnell said.

The city had cleaned up the area behind the Hope House in previous years, though O’Donnell noted it had tried to take a more collaborative approach this year, involving personnel from Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs the Hope House shelter and provides a number of services for homeless residents in the city, and United Way of Eastern Maine.

City of Bangor employees were cleaning the homeless encampment behind the Hope House in Bangor Tuesday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Many city councilors campaigned on establishing more affordable housing in the city before last week’s city council election. Reelected Councilor Susan Hawes, for example, said Monday that she would push the city to turn blighted buildings into new affordable housing in her new term.

O’Donnell noted that residents often call and email city officials about the conditions of the encampments, asking if residents are safe and have access to services.

“With the housing market as tight as it is, there is no easy solution to this issue,” she said. “We are doing our best as a community to approach this head-on and hopefully reduce the amount of impact it has on our area.”