Penobscot County crises require significant investments. Now is the time to make them. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

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Jennifer Thompson is the interim executive director of the Health Equity Alliance.

Doug Dunbar established Penobscot County Cares. Scott Pardy is the founder and owner of Fresh Start Sober Living. They are all part of Penobscot County Cares.

As the new year dawns, Penobscot County faces significant crises. Too many community members are unhoused. An alarming number of our family members, friends and neighbors suffer from substance use disorders or other brain illnesses. A meaningful percentage of the population feels trapped in a state of poverty and hopelessness.

Although other areas are experiencing similar problems, Penobscot County is particularly challenged by these chronic, deadly problems. They’re caused by inadequate affordable housing, insufficient substance use disorder treatment, and too few services for those struggling with co-occurring disorders.

Many observers have been aware of the gathering clouds. Not enough action has been taken, however, to sound the alarm. Not enough support galvanized to make necessary investments and ensure our neighbors are protected from the storm.

Tragically, several neighbors were victims of the perfect storm. The horrific Dec. 5 fire in Bangor appears to be a confluence of the crises confronting us. The memory of those lost should instill a sense of urgency in our planning. Those flames should be a clarion call for change.

Recognizing the severity of our problems, a collaboration involving 35 organizations began in September to heighten awareness of the maladies resulting from a lack of affordable housing and deficiencies in services for addictions and other brain disorders. Penobscot County Cares is the name we’ve taken in our effort to call for progress.

The crises in our region may not be obvious to everyone. Diseases of despair and their collateral consequences are often out of sight, but they impact us all. They tax small nonprofit service providers, large medical facilities, law enforcement agencies, and our individual pocketbooks. They’re costly in multiple ways and include:

An unprecedented overdose disaster with the second highest percentage of deaths among Maine counties in 2021 and twice as many per capita as Cumberland County;

Substantial waiting lists for mental health and substance use disorder treatment;

Shelters adversely impacted by COVID-19 and forced to downsize, with too many people living outside; and

A chronically crowded jail, despite a 45 percent decline in Penobscot County’s crime rate during the past decade.

More than simply highlighting problems, Penobscot County Cares is focusing attention on solutions and calling for investments in healing, health, housing and hope. With enormous sums of federal money available to counties and municipalities through the American Rescue Plan Act, our collective voice has urged the creation of a public process to discuss community needs and ways to better address them.

Penobscot County and its municipalities are receiving millions in funding to address problems caused or exacerbated by COVID-19. About half of the nearly $30 million allocated to Penobscot County government has been received. The other half will arrive by May.

A total of $20 million will be available to the City of Bangor. When you include ARPA funds from other cities and towns in the area, over $60 million is at the disposal of our county commissioners and city or town councilors. They’re the sole decision-makers.

Those ARPA dollars, combined with other resources and leveraged to secure additional funding, can create desperately needed solutions. That money can alter the trajectory of many lives and make our communities healthier, safer and more vibrant.

But this may not happen – not to the extent necessary – without many voices asking that a strong majority of ARPA dollars be targeted on the crises of our time.

Penobscot County recently created a website ( penobscot-county.net/arparesources) to provide details about its process and to take comments. Several listening sessions are upcoming. The City of Bangor has not yet created a process, but we hope it will take shape soon.

Many of our problems have never been worse. ARPA funding offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve progress. If we don’t seize this moment to better care for some of the most vulnerable in our communities, will we ever? If not now, when?