Terry Dinkins spooned spaghetti and meat sauce into paper bowls from a container in his trunk after he parked his SUV on a dirt road near the Cleveland Street water tower in Bangor on a recent Thursday afternoon, while two volunteers walked among dozens of tents telling people there was free food and soda nearby.
Supported by donations, Dinkins, pastor of the Mansion Church, and other volunteers from his congregation hand out water, food, clothing and other necessities at least once a week to homeless Bangor residents who live in the dozens of tents and makeshift shelters that make up so-called Tent City, a growing encampment on Bangor’s west side that occupies the field and woods between the Hope House homeless shelter and the University of Maine at Augusta-Bangor.
Tent City, and its expansion, is one of the most visible symptoms of Bangor’s growing homeless population, whose ranks have swelled — especially since the pandemic began — in tandem with growing homelessness nationwide that’s left cities and rural areas grappling with how to address the problem.
The Mansion Church — like the Brick Church on Union Street — also operates a warming center during the winter, where people can shower, sleep and receive hot food and clothes. It opened the center in March 2020, as shelters reduced their capacity at the outset of the pandemic, and a surge of people walked through its doors. Since then, more have come every year, Dinkins said.
“The homelessness is worse, and I think we’re going to have a huge crisis this winter, and I don’t think they have an answer to what to do,” he said of the city.
Bangor directed at least $10 million in city, state and federal funds to address homelessness and related problems in the first 21 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city has lacked an overall strategy to address the marked growth in the number of people without housing.
One effort the city spearheaded to engage surrounding towns in easing the burden on Bangor’s services and crafting a regional solution petered out after just a few meetings. And there’s limited coordination to the work of the city, the multitude of service providers working with the homeless population and the organizations like the Mansion Church that have stepped in to help.
Clockwise from left: Terry Dinkins, pastor of the Mansion Church, hands out plates of food to people living in the area known as Tent City in Bangor. Damien Jenkins (left), an outreach volunteer with the church, prepared spaghetti with beef and venison that they served on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022; Warner Strout, an outreach volunteer with the Mission Church, checks in on Alekai Chase (left) and Xaivier Reichardt, who are living in the homeless encampment; A growing homeless encampment behind the Hope House in Bangor is one of the more visible symptoms of the city’s growing homeless population; Jenkins, 18, prays with a group of people who are living in Tent City. Jenkins, who was homeless for four years, understands the struggles and now works to help others in need. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Now there are 170 people sleeping outside in 11 different encampments, according to the city’s latest count from August, a 20 percent increase from the 140 unhoused people the city counted two years ago when it evicted an encampment that had formed on Bangor’s waterfront along the Penobscot River. Those numbers do not include those sleeping in Bangor’s two adult homeless shelters and one youth shelter.
“People are mad because homelessness is in their face now, and they don’t want to see it,” said Jody Mackin, whom other Tent City residents refer to as the encampment’s mayor and who has lived there with his wife Cherie since April.
With efforts to craft a regional solution having gone nowhere, the city is now staking its hopes of reducing the homeless population on help from the state.
MaineHousing in February announced it had partnered with the New York organization Community Solutions, which runs an initiative called Built For Zero that pledges to reduce the number of homeless people in cities to zero. The effort, focused on nine regions of the state and stressing improved data on the homeless population and making it easier for homeless residents to access services, is in its early stages.
“Once the infrastructure is in place, it should make things a lot easier,” said Boyd Kronholm, the executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.
‘It’s very bleak’
Jody and Cherie Mackin pitched a tent at the Tent City encampment on April 1 after spending the winter with Cherie’s mother in Millinocket. The couple left her mother’s home to escape drugs and problems with her mother’s boyfriend, Mackin said.
The couple had lived in the Bangor area on and off for 15 years before then. Both are on fixed incomes, and “disability ends up only going so far,” Jody Mackin said, pointing to scars on his knees, the result of 19 separate surgeries.
The couple previously lived in their Chevrolet Equinox on the Bangor waterfront until someone stole it and totaled it last September, Cherie Mackin said.
Since moving to Tent City, she and her husband have reached out to “every organization we can think of” to little avail, she said.
“Caseworkers will hook us up with resources, and they’ll point us in the right direction,” but there are very few available apartments, Jody Mackin said. “There are 100 people for every one. It’s very bleak.”
It’s a common refrain as the Bangor area has faced a housing crunch.
Alekai Chase, 19, and Xaivier Reichardt, 22, said they had applied for dozens of apartments and were turned away every time because neither has a credit history, and because they have a dog, Ellie, even though she is a certified emotional support animal.
The couple’s plans to move to Reichardt’s home state of Texas fell through after the person driving them abandoned them in Kentucky when their car broke down. Reichardt and Chase returned to Bangor and moved to Tent City in May.
Every apartment listing they saw required them to prove they earned at least two to three times the monthly rent to be considered, which is difficult, even though Chase has a job.
“Once you’re at the bottom, it’s hard to work your way back up,” she said.
‘We really don’t know what the need is’
Bangor City Councilor Jonathan Sprague said the myriad local, state and federal government agencies, social service organizations and shelters devoted to addressing homelessness in Bangor lacked any centralized way to collaborate or communicate with each other about their efforts to help homeless residents find housing, mental health treatment and other services.
The city also lacks detailed information about how many people who are sleeping outside have tried to access shelters or transitional housing and have been turned away, he said.
Having that data would also allow the city to track how many people need additional services like substance use and mental health treatment, how many have vouchers but cannot find housing, or how many are ineligible to stay in shelters because of behavioral problems.
“If we don’t really know how many people fit in these categories, and we really don’t know what the need is, it makes it very hard to even talk about solutions to address the needs,” Sprague said.
Bangor spent at least $10 million on homelessness services between March 2020 and December 2021, according to a presentation Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell gave to the council’s government operations committee last December.
The funds — from city coffers and state and federal sources — paid for costs such as rental assistance; funding for outside organizations to run warming centers, distribute food or make shelter improvements; and homeless encampment cleanups. The sum also covers costs as varied as a homeless outreach worker the city has employed for the past three years whose objective is to connect homeless residents with needed services and housing, and bus tickets for some homeless residents so they can get to housing in other states.
The city has also received $20.4 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress approved last year. Members of the coalition Penobscot County Cares have advocated for at least two-thirds of that money to go toward building more affordable housing and funding social services that address substance use disorder and mental health.
“There are more discretionary funds than have ever been seen before,” said Sean Faircloth, the executive director of Together Place Peer Run Recovery Center, which is part of the coalition. “And this would be a big opportunity to be creative and think about how to do that.”
The city has not yet unveiled a plan for how it will spend the money.
Those large sums weren’t available two years ago when Bangor tried to draw in surrounding towns to address the area’s growing homeless population.
Then-City Manager Cathy Conlow invited leaders from the area to discuss strategies to work together to stem the tide and help people get connected to services in their hometowns, according to Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson, who attended the meetings with then-Fire Chief Geoffrey Low, who is now Orono’s public safety director.
The first meeting took place in October 2020, followed by a second in March 2021, Wilson said.
“One of the things that Cathy wanted to talk about was to first make sure that we were aware of [and] understood how burdened the city of Bangor’s services were and to identify some practices by local communities that were really not appropriate, and to ask that those stop,” Wilson said.
Conlow stressed that police from other communities shouldn’t drop homeless people off in Bangor without checking first to see if there were available shelter beds, and said surrounding towns should work together to connect their homeless residents with resources before they left for Bangor, Wilson said.
Conlow, who now runs the Maine Municipal Association, referred questions about the meetings to current city leadership.
Kronholm of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter said he’s had people show up at the shelter from outside the area unannounced, making it difficult to help them.
During the pandemic, he said, a northern Maine hospital paid for cabs to take recently released people to the shelter without notifying him beforehand, rationalizing that Bangor would have more resources than a small town.
“A lot of times, the folks who are coming from Aroostook County or the Portland area have support [systems] or even they have case management, or counseling, but now they’re two or three hours away,” he said. “So it’s like reinventing the wheel to start them and reestablish them in Bangor, where it’d be much easier if we could just do this as locally as possible.”
After the initial meetings with law enforcement, area officials and homeless advocates, there was supposed to be a follow-up meeting where all three groups discussed potential solutions, according to Dennis Marble, a former Bangor Area Homeless Shelter director who facilitated the meetings.
“They [were supposed] to prioritize next steps, but that never really happened,” he said. “I think the city moved on at that point.”
A change in leadership was one contributor to a loss in momentum, as the city was left without a permanent manager for six months after Conlow stepped down in August 2021, said Rindy Fogler, the assistant director of Bangor’s public health and community services department.
But the city also felt as if the homelessness situation had become too unwieldy for Bangor to handle on its own, she said.
“There certainly was some thought and some discussion about the fact that there needed to be more state involvement. There’s no question we feel that way now,” Fogler said.
Still, Bangor is not trying to shirk its duties, she said.
“We know we have a responsibility to our residents who are unsheltered, and we will do everything we can to keep people safe and to get people housed, but at this point in time we feel like we need more help from the state level.”
That realization has led the city to “proactively” seek the state’s help, Kronholm said. He pointed to the state housing authority’s partnership with Community Solutions to hire coordinators to oversee Built For Zero initiative efforts in nine hubs throughout Maine.
Now, that effort is starting to take shape in the Bangor area.
Built for Zero
The Maine State Housing Authority earlier this year identified local organizations to oversee the Built for Zero work in the state’s nine identified hubs, or regions, with Bangor-based Community Health and Counseling Services in charge of the work in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
A top priority for the initiative is better data on the homeless population.
Built For Zero coordinators keep a “by name list” of every homeless person in a particular area, so there’s real-time data on how many people there are and what services they need, according to Jen Weatherbee, the hub coordinator for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, who began her role in May.
Weatherbee is using the by name list to improve the city’s data on its residents who are facing homelessness and need services.
Currently, Bangor only conducts an annual point-in-time study to determine how many homeless people are in the city, which Weatherbee called a “flawed approach.”
In addition, she’s creating a coordinated entry network with Bangor-area homeless service providers, which will bring those providers together so those in need of services, like a housing voucher or a shelter bed, don’t have to contact every individual agency looking for what they need. The pilot program launches next month.
“It’s developing a system where we can communicate more effectively about particular clients, and trying to kind of match them to the resources that are appropriate to them,” she said.
Still, clawing one’s way out of homelessness will remain difficult as long as housing remains scarce, said Chase, the 19-year-old living in Tent City.
The city should “take half of these [condemned] buildings” and convert them into housing, she said.
Other proposals to address homelessness, like a developer’s plans to build tiny homes in a Bangor mobile home park, are a “dead subject,” Jody Mackin said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.