A homeless encampment by the Penobscot River in Bangor, under the I-395 bridge, is shown before the city cleared it at the start of December. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A fire on Union Street last weekend that killed three members of Bangor’s homeless population has highlighted the city’s growing homeless population, and a lack of easy solutions to solving the problems driving its growth.

Homelessness in Bangor has risen rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic, after many people lost places to stay or their jobs. While Bangor is home to just 32,000 people, the rise has been pronounced in the city because it’s a hub of homeless services for northern and eastern Maine — a region with a much larger population of about 400,000 people.

Experts on homelessness say solving the problem goes far beyond housing itself and requires an approach that also addresses homelessness’ root causes — not just poverty, but mental illness and substance use disorder. Meanwhile, city officials and others who provide services to the area’s homeless population have long argued that reducing homelessness requires a regional approach that doesn’t depend on Bangor alone.

The largest segment of Bangor’s homeless population likely comes from Maine communities outside of Bangor — making up 52 percent of people who stayed at Bangor’s two main shelters, the Hope House and the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, between July 2020 and June 2021 and said where they were from. The next largest group, 39 percent, was from Bangor.

“Bangor, Portland, Lewiston are the municipalities that are bearing the huge brunt,” said Daniel Brennan, director of the Maine State Housing Authority. “Maybe if there was a little collaboration in that local area, it wouldn’t feel as though one community was doing it all.”

With that regional approach in mind, MaineHousing is working with a New York group, Community Solutions, to create nine regional service hubs that coordinate services for homeless people in larger regions. Those hubs will involve homeless shelters, nonprofits, hospitals, educational institutions, mental health service providers, first responders and public housing authorities, Brennan said.

MaineHousing expects to issue a request for proposals in the coming days to hire coordinators for the first five regional hubs, which Brennan said would bring a more holistic approach to addressing homelessness that doesn’t leave the burden of addressing a statewide problem to local shelters and nonprofit groups.

The recent Union Street fire underscores the importance of instituting a new approach to homelessness in Maine, Brennan said. The pandemic has also shown that the current system doesn’t work, Brennan said, especially because it lacks coordination.

At least two of the three people who died in the Union Street fire, which happened at a long vacant, condemned home, had recently relocated from a homeless encampment by the Penobscot River that the city shut down at the start of December.

“People have to live somewhere and pushing them out of one place — whether an encampment or a condemned building — simply pushes them to go somewhere else, typically a place they find inferior,” said Beth Shinn, a homelessness expert and professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

There are dangers in living in abandoned buildings, but also to living in encampments and homeless shelters, Shinn said.

Shelters have seen coronavirus outbreaks throughout the pandemic, during which shelters — including those in Bangor — have reduced their numbers of beds so they could maintain social distancing.

The solution comes down to providing affordable housing with associated services that help people with mental illness and substance use disorder, Shinn said. But the federal government’s main form of housing assistance, housing choice vouchers, doesn’t reach all eligible families, and using the vouchers depends on families finding housing with landlords willing to accept vouchers.

Some communities have also had success with buying hotels and converting them into permanent affordable housing, Shinn said. In Bangor, homeless residents began staying in rooms at the Ramada Inn last year, but federal funding for that program will stop at the end of this month.

Others have discussed alternative ideas that require funding and sustained effort. Bangor City Councilor Susan Hawes proposed turning condemned homes across Bangor into affordable housing in her successful re-election campaign last November.

Martha Schoendorf, a homeless woman who lives in an encampment in Bangor and recently organized a vigil for the Union Street fire victims, suggested the tiny homes model tried in some parts of the U.S. — essentially, erecting villages of small housing structures that have bathrooms and heaters.

The high price of housing will continue to drive people to the streets if it doesn’t come down, Shinn said.

“We also need to stop generating more homelessness by making housing more affordable,” she said.