Bangor’s growing homeless population is something that area residents recognize as one of the top challenges the city currently faces — though city officials have yet to come up with an overall strategy to contend with that growth.
But the city is far from unique in its troubles. Across the country, urban areas large and small have had to contend with growing ranks of unhoused individuals, an increase exacerbated by the pandemic and skyrocketing housing costs. It can sometimes feel like it’s a problem that will never truly be solved.
But some cities have had a great deal of success getting people off the streets and into housing — and not all of them are major urban areas with the resources to do so.
One thing that many of these communities have in common is that they are all part of Built For Zero, a program run by national nonprofit Community Solutions, which aims to help towns and cities reduce their homeless population to “functional zero,” where homelessness is rare and brief. It has partnered with more than 100 communities nationwide.
In February, MaineHousing announced it would join Built For Zero in a statewide effort, with nine regions in the state creating their own service hubs. In the Bangor area — which is part of the region covering Penobscot and Piscataquis counties — Community Health and Counseling Services was awarded the service hub contract. A pilot program is expected to launch this fall.
Among the goals of Built For Zero is to create a “command center” that groups multiple service organizations under one umbrella, thus making it easier to access services; to create a by-name census of every local individual experiencing homelessness; and to make strategic investments in housing where it will be most effective.
Rockford, Illinois, a city of about 147,000 not far from Chicago and Milwaukee, began its work to seriously address the root causes of homelessness back in 2015, when it joined Built for Zero. In January 2017, it made headlines when it became the first community in the country to end both veteran and chronic homelessness, and by the beginning of 2020, it was poised to eliminate homelessless outright.
It achieved many of those goals by developing partnerships between area service organizations, all of whom are connected through Community Action, the city’s centralized alliance of providers through which people can access a range of services, from housing to medical care to addiction treatment.
In 2015, it also began to collect that by-name list of every individual in the community experiencing homelessness — a list that it continues to keep updated, seven years into the process. Caseworkers also get information on people’s medical and mental health histories and other background information, so they can more effectively pair individuals with personalized services, housing and other resources.
When the pandemic struck, what could have been a long-term obstacle to Rockford achieving the goal of ending homelessness turned out to be a temporary setback, as the city recommitted to its efforts.
“Once the pandemic hit, our agency never closed and never stopped working with the homeless population,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said. “We worked with our local health departments, agencies and shelters to ensure our population stayed as healthy as possible, and we continued to house people as quickly as we could.”
Farther west, in Oregon’s Marion and Polk counties, home to capital city Salem and large suburbs like Keizer and Woodburn, creating that by-name list of individuals has been crucial to the efforts of leaders there.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you’ve met one homeless person, you’ve met one homeless person,’” said Cathy Clark, mayor of Keizer and chair of the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance, the organization formed in 2019 to tackle the problem. “Homeless people are not a monolith. Every single person has complex needs that don’t often respond to a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance joined Built for Zero in October 2019, and now has multiple bodies from Marion and Polk counties under its umbrella — including nonprofits, municipal departments, school districts, faith-based groups and tribal governments. It’s a major shift from its previous model, which encompassed 20 counties and which by 2018 had become unwieldy and ineffective.
In June 2021, the Homeless Alliance completed its first list of by-name data for all those experiencing chronic homelessness, and by October 2021, it had acquired nearly $10 million in federal grants to address homelessness, which it distributes to the organizations under its umbrella. Among the projects its associated groups have accomplished include the creation of two micro-shelter communities by local religious organization Church at the Park, and the launch of a new program to end youth homelessness.
Clark said Built for Zero’s approach aligned perfectly with what the Homeless Alliance hoped to accomplish, and that collaboration and focus have been key to their early successes.
“It’s super easy as you engage with this work to get sidetracked by protocols, or conflicts, or power struggles,” she said. “At every meeting we have, we end it by reminding everyone why we’re here, which is that it’s always about that human being, and that even if that person does not believe that they deserve to live in a healthy, safe environment, we do. Remaining focused will help you get through those tough conversations.”
But both Salem and Rockford are much larger cities than Bangor. Burlington, Vermont, population 42,600, is more similar to Bangor, including in population, demographics and geography. It also has partnered with Built For Zero, starting in February 2018.
Like Bangor, Burlington was already experiencing a homelessness crisis that only grew and worsened during the pandemic. Similarly, Burlington partnered with a local motel to temporarily house people safely during the pandemic. Burlington has also experienced rapid growth in housing costs over the past few years.
But when American Rescue Plan Act funds were allocated to cities nationwide last year, Burlington acted quickly to allocate the money, and conducted a survey of residents in October 2021 — a process Bangor did not begin until May 2022. Among the top priorities from that survey was investing in infrastructure to address homelessness, a need identified in the city’s action plan to end homelessness, goals from which include doubling housing production by 2026, and ending chronic homelessness by 2024.
“It was clear that congregate shelters didn’t work during the pandemic. But pushing people into motels wasn’t an ideal solution, either, given the scarcity of that kind of real estate being available,” said Sarah Russell, Burlington’s special assistant to end homelessness. “But non-congregate shelter was a really good model. And that’s where the idea of the pods came in.”
By February 2022, the Burlington city council had approved a plan to spend $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds to construct shelter pods for temporary housing for the homeless. The pods are manufactured by Vermont company Up End This, and are outfitted by the company Pallet, which has worked with a number of cities nationwide to create shelter pods.
The 25 single-occupancy and five double-occupancy pods, all climate-controlled and lockable, will be located on a city-owned parking lot in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood, and will include a separate building with shower, toilet and laundry facilities. The site will be managed by local nonprofit Champlain Housing Trust, which will pair individuals and families with their own pods, and then work with them to eventually transition out of the temporary shelter into permanent housing.
By the time work is complete on the entire pod site in December, Burlington estimates it will house around half of the city’s homeless population. In all, the process to create the shelter pod site took less than a year.
“I think we recognized that we needed to be creative and innovative in our response,” Russell said. “Giving people their own space, where they can have privacy, where the barrier to access is low, is an approach that has really worked in so many places.”