Charles Cortright made the decision this week to leave Arizona and return to Bangor after spending a year in Tucson living on the street.
He took an Amtrak train from Arizona to Boston. He then made it to the Augusta area and sought help at the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where staff told him they had nowhere for him to go. He took a bus back to Bangor, where he was living before he became homeless.
Cortright planned to sleep at the Mansion Church on Center Street on Thursday night, but doesn’t know where he’ll go after it closes its warming center on Friday.
He is one of dozens of homeless Bangor residents who have sought shelter during the daytime at the Bangor Public Library, especially when shelters and warming centers are at capacity or have closed.
The library is one of the few places in Bangor where people like Cortright can seek shelter without having to buy anything, and can access free resources like wireless internet and a computer. It also has the only public bathroom in downtown Bangor.
But as a growing number of patrons seek shelter there during the day, the library has also seen a spike in behavioral problems, such as people using drugs in bathrooms and screaming at and threatening staff. There’s also been one suspected assault, requiring law enforcement and social workers to intervene, library director Ben Treat said.
Before the pandemic, the library asked police for five or six criminal trespass orders a year to keep disruptive people from re-entering their doors. Library staff have asked for 43 in the last eight months, Treat said. There were also four overdoses in the building between November and March.
Bangor police responded to 59 calls from the library between January and March this year, mostly for welfare checks, overdoses and disorderly conduct like fighting, said spokesperson Wade Betters. There were 11 service calls from the library during the same period last year.
The problems at the library are among the spillover effects as Bangor struggles to address growing homelessness in the city. Treat and Hannah Young, the library’s marketing and development director, blame it on a lack of housing, the end of federal aid for the Ramada Inn to house homeless residents and too few warming centers for the increased volume of people seeking shelter.
“We became, at first, the most desirable, and then eventually, the only place that [homeless residents] can stay warm,” Treat said.
The library has always been a welcoming place for residents to get out of the cold, but staff have been overwhelmed, Young said.
Francis Mooney, 62, a formerly homeless Bangor resident, said he had noticed similar issues as he sat with his friend John in the library atrium on Thursday.
He recently found a used needle sitting on a toilet paper dispenser in one of the bathrooms and has noticed people “running around” and otherwise acting out.
“They’ll go to the place of least resistance, and that happens to be the library,” Mooney said.
Left; A list of rules are displayed on the tables in the atrium of the Bangor Public Library. Right; Since reopening with extended hours in August, the Bangor Public Library has seen an increase in the number of homeless people seeking shelter during daytime hours. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Treat and Young said there’s a tension between wanting the library to remain a welcoming place in line with its mission and keeping its patrons safe. The library closed some single-stall bathrooms to prevent people from overdosing alone and not being found, but has resisted calls to shut down the entire building to people without shelter.
“That’s not something we’re going to do,” Treat said. “We can’t be a community center and say, ‘But only this section of the community can come in.’”
The library has employed a patchwork of solutions, regularly communicating with Bangor police, Bangor Public Health, the Health Equity Alliance, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, the Hope House shelter and Community Health and Counseling Services to ensure patrons who have mental health, addiction and housing challenges can access help.
About two-thirds of staff underwent naloxone training in August 2020, so they know how to use the opioid overdose reversal drug. The library is seeking funding to hire more people to patrol the library and check on patrons.
Still, it’s not clear when more resources, like increased shelter space and permanent housing, will be available.
Cortright said he was on a waitlist to get into the Hope House shelter because he couldn’t find an apartment or a room that fit his $1,000-a-month budget. He’s considering living in a tent somewhere after the Mansion Church closes its warming center.