Homeless residents were living in an encampment under the I-385 bridge before they were asked by the city of Bangor to leave in December 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Nearly a year after portable outdoor bathrooms were removed from downtown Bangor due to extensive vandalism, an advocate for the area’s growing homeless population said the city needs to add public bathrooms downtown again.

Brian Pitman, spokesperson for the Greater Bangor Houseless Collective, said it’s the city’s responsibility to provide and maintain ample and adequate bathrooms for its residents because it’s considered a public service. The city, however, reported staffing limitations are hindering its ability to add more bathrooms downtown.  

The Bangor City Council voted unanimously in April 2021 to place outdoor public bathrooms in high-traffic areas, mainly for the city’s homeless population. The bathrooms cost $70,000 annually and were provided by Casella. Units were placed in Broad Street Park and behind the Hope House, which offers health care and housing to the city’s homeless population, according to Courtney O’Donnell, assistant city manager and director of human resources.

In early August 2021 however, Casella removed the public bathroom in Broad Street Park after it was repeatedly abused. O’Donnell said trash and needles were disposed of in the unit and human waste covered the walls.

Fewer public bathrooms downtown can directly impact not only the city’s unhoused population, but those who need to use the bathroom frequently due to a disability, illness or age, said Brian Pitman.

“That can limit the time people spend in the city because they have to structure their day around when they have to go to the bathroom,” Pitman said.

If the city were to supply more public bathrooms, Pitman said it’d likely encourage people to spend more time downtown because they’d be able to access the facilities when needed rather than go elsewhere.

In late August 2021, Casella removed the outdoor public bathroom behind Hope House for the same reason — repeated and extensive vandalism and misuse that made the unit unsafe to clean, O’Donnell said.

“At that time, we reached out to a nearby agency that was actively monitoring and cleaning the bathroom on a regular basis, and was informed that due to safety concerns they could no longer service the unit and requested it be removed,” O’Donnell said.

Since then, Hope House has not seen any issues with residents or non-residents misusing or vandalizing the restrooms in the building, according to Kate Carlisle, spokesperson for Penobscot Community Health Care, which oversees Hope House.

Though the outdoor bathrooms have been removed, public buildings including the Harbormaster building on the waterfront, city hall and the Bangor Public Library continue to offer public bathrooms.

Bangor City Manager Debbie Laurie said the transit center now under construction in Pickering Square will also have a public bathroom when it opens in October. The building will be staffed, she said, giving the city a way to monitor and maintain the facilities.

Ben Treat, Bangor Public Library director, said he’s aware of people using illegal substances in the library bathrooms, but he hasn’t seen substantial vandalism in the facilities.

“Using drugs in the library is not safe, and we do everything we can to limit both the opportunity and the appearance of opportunity to use substances in the bathroom,” Treat said.

Within the last year, the library asked police for 49 criminal trespass orders to keep disruptive people from re-entering the building. Of those, 16 involved observed substance use and several others were likely related to people under the influence of illegal drugs, Treat said.  

The library has also served as a hub for dozens of homeless people because it’s one of the few places in Bangor people can escape the elements and access free resources like wireless internet, a computer and the restroom.

Treat said the library has increased patrols of library spaces, including its restrooms.

“These patrols are meant to both project our occupancy of unstaffed spaces and to identify unacceptable behavior before it is encountered by patrons,” Treat said.

Laurie said the city continues to look for ways to provide public bathrooms, but staffing is a major barrier because the city needs someone to monitor the facilities to ensure they’re used safely and appropriately.

Should the city attempt to supply public restrooms again, Pitman agreed with the city’s intention to have a staff member oversee the facilities to discourage vandalism and abuse. The bathrooms, however, should remain open 24/7, he said.

“If it’s illegal to use the bathroom in public and the library is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., when are people who are living outside supposed to use the bathroom when it’s closed?” Pitman said.

He also recommended needle drop boxes be included in the facility, as it would prevent needles from being disposed of improperly.  This would serve not only those with substance use disorder, but anyone who needs to give themselves an injection during the day, such as someone with diabetes who needs insulin.

Pitman also recommended the city look to Portland, which used $600,000 in federal American Rescue Plan funds to add three new single-stall toilets downtown. The toilets are portable, non-flushable and made of aluminum instead of plastic. They will have ventilation, solar-powered lighting and secure boxes for sharps.

“When you try to be inclusive for your most marginalized people, it ends up benefiting everyone else in the long run,” Pitman said.

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...