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Every candidate in the recent Bangor City Council race said houselessness was the top issue facing the city. The growing number of unhoused people in Portland is also a focus in Maine’s largest city.
We applaud this attention to and concern for the ongoing epidemic of houselessness. It is easy to believe, however, that the attention is not doing much to change the situation.
This belief was confirmed this week when three men — Andrew Allen, 56; Dylan Smith, 31; and Tim Tuttle, 28 — died in a vacant house in Bangor. At least two of them were staying in the house in Union Street after being told to leave an encampment under the Interstate 395 bridge in Bangor, people who were familiar with the men said. The three died when the house burned. Two other people escaped the fire.
Martha Schoendorf, who lives at an encampment of houseless residents on Cleveland Street, near the Hope House shelter, spoke to the Bangor Daily News about the three men earlier this week.
“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.”
We hope so as well. We also recognize that it will take more than hope to improve living conditions for those who are unhoused in Maine.
We don’t mean to suggest that elected officials in Bangor, Portland and elsewhere aren’t sincere in their hopes and ambitions to reduce the population of Mainers who do not have housing. We believe they are. We also realize that the employees of the many social service agencies that are working on this and other critical issues are doing tireless work and that, in many instances, progress is being made.
But, despite years of concern and some action, too many Mainers can’t find affordable housing and too many remain unhoused, often in unhealthy and dangerous conditions.
We fully understand that this is a complex problem with many facets, including the lack of affordable housing and the ongoing shortage of sufficient mental health and substance use treatment.
The solution — more housing — is deceptively simple. Zoning can make it difficult to site and build affordable housing. Neighborhood opposition can quash affordable housing projects and temporary shelter for the unhoused. And, what is deemed affordable may still be out of reach for people struggling to keep their jobs while managing complex health and other needs.
Despite Sunday’s tragedy, which we in no way mean to diminish, there are signs of hope on the horizon.
With the focus on safety that the pandemic has brought, state officials, including the Department of Health and Human Services have become much more engaged in this work. With additional federal funding, outreach efforts will grow, as they must. New temporary housing options — like hotels — have highlighted the possibility of addressing the crisis of houselessness in new ways. Bangor is close to signing on with an innovative program called Built for Zero, which has reduced houselessness in 90 communities.
Despite all this work, there are some basic building blocks missing. For example, in Bangor there is no central database of how many people who are unhoused. So, no one really knows how many people are sleeping outside or in their cars. This lack of data also makes it hard for the various agencies that interact with these people to coordinate and track services.
There are also many public misperceptions of those who are unhoused. The majority of those who become houseless remain so for less than 14 days, Lori Dwyer, the chief executive officer of Penobscot Community Health Care, told the Bangor Daily News editorial board. Penobscot Community Health Care includes Hope House, which provides housing and services to unhoused people in Bangor. During those two weeks, either they or an agency find housing and they are typically connected with services.
An adequate supply of affordable housing is essential to ensuring these people don’t remain unhoused. When housing is in short supply, as it is now, too many of these people tip into long-term houselessness.
The chronically houseless, those who can’t or won’t stay in a shelter and who the public tends to see in encampments and in public spaces, account for only 3 percent to 5 percent of the houseless population, but require the majority of her staff’s time, Dwyer said. Their needs are much more complex and often overlap with unmet behavioral health, substance use or other needs.
Despite the many challenges ahead, Dwyer remains optimistic. “I do think there’s forward momentum. But we can’t lose the sense of urgency that we have now,” she said.
That sense of urgency should lead to new ways of thinking and acting that increase the availability of affordable housing, and the many other services that are needed to support the many Mainers who are struggling to get by.