The city is asking homeless residents living under the Interstate 395 bridge to leave by Dec. 1 due to potential dangers that could arise with inclement weather. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor is considering a policy that would allow people to set up tents in public, but only if no local shelter beds are available.

The potential move in Bangor is prompted by a new policy in Portland, through which the city prohibits camping in public except for when there’s no available space in local shelters.

City Manager Debbie Laurie floated the idea to councilors at a City Council workshop on Monday after she said she had spoken to Portland city staff about the new policy. Such a policy in Bangor would outline circumstances in which those with no shelter are allowed to pitch a tent in public.

Bangor’s  code of ordinances bans camping on public property, and the city has occasionally evicted tent communities for reasons like accessibility. One encampment under the I-395 overpass along the Penobscot River waterfront was broken up last November because city staff worried emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to reach the site if they were called to respond to someone in distress.

Three people ordered to leave the location, Dylan Smith, Andrew Allen and Tim Tuttle, later died after taking shelter in an abandoned house on Union Street that caught on fire.

If enacted, Laurie said Bangor would allow tents on public property if there weren’t any shelter beds available, after a federal court ruled in 2018 that it was illegal for cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances if other options weren’t available to homeless people.

Bangor’s homeless population has ebbed and flowed depending on factors like weather, but rose during the pandemic as shelters reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing and a lack of housing inventory throughout the city has persisted.

Homelessness and a lack of affordable housing have dominated recent local elections.

Laurie said there were about 170 homeless people living in 11 encampments scattered throughout the city, and 23 shelter beds between the Hope House and Bangor Area Homeless Shelter were available as of Monday morning.

Some councilors supported having Bangor city staff devise a policy that would go into effect Jan. 1, citing frustration from downtown business owners who have complained about litter and human waste being left on street corners and in shop entrances on a daily basis.

“People want to see us do something,” councilor Dan Tremble said, adding that the city tries to connect homeless people to services whenever possible. “That’s not a healthy situation out there.”

Councilor Susan Hawes said the city had been thoughtful and humane when it evicted encampments, and that the I-395 eviction had been “weeks in the making.”

“Everybody was down there, talking to people, offering services,” she said. “I don’t think you have to be concerned that we’re just going to go in there and swoop everybody up into vans and drive them out of there.”

The city hasn’t “done everything right, but we haven’t done it all wrong, either,” Hawes said.

The council’s newest member, Joe Leonard, said he was more reluctant to sign off on a policy allowing the city to evict tent communities.

“These are people who are down on their luck. They don’t want to be there,” he said. “If we don’t have beds available, it’s important to make sure these people have a place to call home.”

The Greater Bangor Houseless Collective, which advocates on behalf of the city’s homeless community, called such a policy “dangerous,” especially because it relies on a shelter system that many sleeping outside aren’t able to access, even when beds are available.

“A policy such as this is likely to lead to increased policing and criminalization of

unhoused people,” the group said in a statement. “Implementing this policy in January, when the number of people living outside is less, only provides the city plausible deniability when more people inevitably return outside when the warmer weather returns.”

Laurie said she would direct city employees and the legal department to begin drafting a policy.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to