A fire that killed three homeless men in a condemned home on Union Street has brought renewed attention to Bangor’s growing homeless population and a recent move by the city ordering homeless residents to evacuate a riverfront encampment under the I-395 bridge.
Three people died after a fire in the building on Sunday morning — Andrew Allen, 56; Dylan Smith, 31; and Tim Tuttle, 28 — while two others escaped from the burning property. At least two of those who died had stayed at the I-395 bridge encampment before the city required that people leave the area last Wednesday, according to people who knew them.
Martha Schoendorf, who lives at an encampment of homeless residents by Cleveland Street, near the Hope House shelter, said the three men who died in the fire aren’t the first in Bangor’s homeless community to die in recent months, as people without housing have struggled to stay warm.
Asked if she believed the tragedy could spur a change in Bangor’s approach to homelessness, Schoendorf was overcome with emotion.
“It’s really sad. But if it took that to get the help that we need…,” Schoenderf said before trailing off, crying. “I just hope we can do better than this.”
Although there are programs and funds throughout the Bangor area to help homeless residents, they don’t appear to be doing enough to solve a problem that has only worsened, she said. Homeless people have difficulty accessing help, she added, as most don’t have cell phones and even fewer have internet connections, which are often needed to seek assistance.
Schoendorf said Tuttle was staying in the condemned house to avoid the cold weather. He had previously stayed at the encampment under the I-395 bridge, she said, and was trying to stay sober at the time of his death.
“It’s not like they were doing anything inappropriate,” Schoenderf said. “They were just trying to stay warm.”
David Carr, who has brought supplies such as coffee, firewood and other items to Bangor’s homeless population for decades, met Smith days before he had to leave the I-395 encampment. Smith helped him distribute firewood there, picking up heavy piles.
“He was honest, very polite,” Carr said. “He said, ‘You don’t know how much we appreciate this, bringing this wood down to us.’”
The Greater Bangor Housing Coalition, which advocates for the city’s homeless residents and more affordable housing, blasted city officials in a statement on Monday, saying that policy choices, including the decision to clear the I-395 encampment, had caused the tragedy.
“The city’s lack of urgency in creating safe accessible housing creates real life-or-death urgency for unhoused community members,” the group said in a statement.
It is unclear if the Bangor City Council will re-examine any policies in the aftermath of the tragedy. Council Chair Rick Fournier did not respond to a request for comment Monday while Councilor Clare Davitt declined to comment on the fire, which she described as tragic.
City spokesperson Julia Steer lamented the fire in a statement, though she said the city would not comment further as it awaits the results of an investigation.
“The city is saddened to have learned of this incident and expresses our sincere condolences to the friends and families of those who passed away,” Steer said.
Kate Carlisle, a spokesperson for Penobscot Community Health Care which runs the Hope House shelter, described the fire as terrible and tragic. The victims were not guests at the shelter, she said.
“They were known to many in the community, and our thoughts and deepest condolences are with their families and friends,” Carlisle said.
Carlisle said a regional approach to the homelessness crisis was critical and that PCHC would continue to work with the city of Bangor and other agencies.
Schoendorf believes that the tiny homes model tried in some parts of the U.S. — erecting villages of small housing structures — could be a solution. She noted that such transitional housing has bathrooms and heaters.
“It’s a temporary solution until they can get them in permanent housing,” Schoendorf said. “But it’s working.”
Two Bangor police cruisers were parked in the immediate vicinity of the Union Street house on Monday morning. A makeshift memorial was on a pole outside the house with a Bible, a bouquet of flowers and candles.