John Ellis, who used to be homeless, speaks about homeless policy during the public comment period of the Bangor City Council meeting on Monday. Ellis, who said an early criminal record had prevented him from joining the military, is wearing his father's air force jacket. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Bangor residents, indignant about a fire that killed three homeless men, forcefully demanded change from the city in a Monday council meeting, with some urging the city to use more than $20 million in federal funds to solve a growing homelessness problem.

Three homeless men died in a fire at a condemned home on Union Street on Dec. 5 in Maine’s most deadly fire in five years. The tragedy has drawn attention to the growing homeless problem in Bangor, with the hour-and-a-half public comment period drawing in activists, non-profit employees and current and former members of the city’s homeless community.

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Some of the more fiery comments, especially those criticizing the Bangor police, drew rare rebukes from councilors.

City Council Chair Rick Fournier said several times the council was taking the matter seriously and that Bangor has compassionate and robust institutions that will work to solve the problem.

Bangor City Council Chair Rick Fournier addresses a city council meeting on Monday. Fournier kept a cool demeanor throughout the meeting, repeatedly saying the city took the homelessness problem seriously. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

John Ellis, 58, called the current situation a “humanitarian crisis.”

People from other towns across Maine have come to Bangor because it has services, but it has proven difficult to handle all of them, Ellis said.

Ellis said he spent several years of his childhood as a ward of the state and that an early criminal record had hurt his opportunities, including a dream to join the military. He ended up homeless in Bangor and once lived on the waterfront before assistance from local agencies helped him get off the street.

The council should be proactive, he said, seeking out the governor for assistance and using federal funds to help the problem.

“The homeless problem is not going to go away,” Ellis said. “The best we can do right now is manage it with love and compassion, which I know exists. I see it. I’m a recipient of it.”

Many said they saw an offensive juxtaposition in the city’s lack of help to the homeless population and the Penobscot County commissioners’ consideration of using federal coronavirus funds to expand Penobscot County Jail.

Doug Dunbar described the fire as a confluence of three crises facing the area: mental health problems, homelessness and substance use disorder.

He also said residents should be able to weigh in on how Bangor should spend the more than $20 million it will receive in American Rescue Plan funds. Many other speakers said Bangor should use that money to fix the homeless problem.

The meeting never devolved into yelling, but it was characterized by some clearly tense moments.

Julia Norman, speaking over Zoom, called police “very useless” in preventing crime or violence, and said city policy had led to the Union Street tragedy. The city cleared a homeless encampment along the Penobscot River under the I-395 bridge days before the fire. At least two of the three fire victims previously stayed at that encampment, according to people who knew them.

Councilor Dan Tremble rejected Norman’s suggestion, saying it was incorrect to say the city hadn’t provided the victims any services. In addition, he said, the police did not harass the homeless.

Bangor City Councilor Angela Okafor speaks about policing during a city council meeting on Monday. She rejected a statement from a speaker that the police were useless. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

“Your comments are completely off-base and inaccurate,” Tremble said. “It’s a tragedy that occurred, and it’s very unfortunate.”

Councilor Angela Okafor, the first Black person elected to the Bangor City Council, said that there are obvious problems with policing, referring to her race. But authorities play an important role in protecting the community, she said.

“Do I fight with the police chief? Of course. We disagree a lot,” Okafor said. “But, at the same time, they bring a lot of positives.”