A man with a bike walks through a homeless encampment
Bangor officials cited potential dangers that could arise with inclement weather when they asked unhoused people living under the Interstate 395 bridge to leave by Dec. 1. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Brian Pitman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national  Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

A new state law requires police forces to have a protocol for interacting with unhoused people in Maine. While this may be well intended, it could actually increase police surveillance of the growing number of unhoused people in Maine. This won’t help solve the widening crisis, while potentially having a detrimental impact on unhoused communities.

On March 24, the Bangor Police Department notified the city council of its requirement to develop a homelessness crisis protocol and to train all staff in that protocol. This is a new requirement as a result of the recent passage of LD 1478: An Act to Require the Use of Homelessness Crisis Protocols by Law Enforcement Agencies. In essence, when police encounter someone accused of certain minor crimes, they must ask that person if they have a home or lack a home. These low-level crimes include: criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, urinating in public, possession of a scheduled drug or public drinking. If the person says they do not have a home, police must respond based on the approved protocol. In Bangor, that protocol prioritizes “providing a referral to service, even if previously denied” as “the most appropriate and preferred action, based on presented facts, in lieu of citation or arrest.”

LD 1478 was initially an attempt to decriminalize homelessness, at least in name (the act initially included “decriminalization” but was dropped reportedly to address Republican concerns). However, the policy falls well short of actually decriminalizing homelessness. In fact, the law may actually lead to unintended consequences. By requiring police to have a homelessness crisis protocol, the state could be encouraging police (and the criminal legal system more broadly) to interact more with unhoused people. This is important here in Penobscot County where the county is seeking to double its jail capacity. While the law requires the development of the protocol, police discretion to arrest still remains.

Additionally, the law requires police to document these interactions, which, along with encouraging more interactions with unhoused people, could further increase police surveillance of unhoused communities. In their book “Prison By Any Other Name,” Victoria Law and Maya Schenwar discuss a number of reforms to the criminal legal system and pose the following questions: “What does it mean to reform – to improve – a system that, at its core, relies on captivity and control? What are the dangers of perfecting a system that was designed to target marginalized people?” Their overall point is that criminal justice reforms only serve to make this purposefully oppressive institution “kinder and gentler” and thus, more acceptable to the public. This is a possible implication of LD 1478.

In order to actually decriminalize homelessness, it is necessary to diminish police responses to people experiencing homelessness. Obvious, more immediate solutions that directly address the “low-level crimes” outlined in LD 1478 is to increase access to and the availability of public health needs.

For example, public bathrooms in Bangor are largely inaccessible. If it is a crime to urinate in public and a person’s only option is public urination, they risk criminalization. This, obviously, is the bare minimum.

Trespassing in public spaces should also be decriminalized. This could have helped prevent the deaths of three unhoused people in a Bangor house fire in December, which followed an unhoused encampment sweep under the I-395 bridge three days prior.

Maine should also decriminalize all drugs and public drinking, other offenses listed in LD 1478. Drug decriminalization is backed by plenty of evidence as an effective policy response as outlined  previously  in this  newspaper. Most importantly though is that Maine must address housing and ban encampment sweeps (Bangor alone has conducted  at least  three since the summer of 2020).

Requiring police agencies in Maine to implement homelessness protocols has the potential for results that are counterintuitive to its initially stated pursuit of decriminalizing homelessness. True decriminalization must separate the police as respondents to unhoused people and communities, while also providing for the communities’ basic needs.

Bangor has an opportunity now, with $20.4 million at its disposal from the American Rescue Plan Act, to begin addressing the needs of unhoused community members and to pursue true decriminalization. Using those funds to build and support no-barrier housing would certainly go a long way.