Bangor has made plans to clean up city homeless encampments this fall and connect homeless residents to services, as winter approaches and the number of people living outside with no permanent shelter has continued to grow.
The announcement came during a City Council meeting on Monday, the same day a dozen residents spoke before the council to express their frustration at the city’s growing homeless problem.
The announcement and comments from residents happened a week after the Bangor Daily News published an article outlining how a city-led effort to work with surrounding communities to stem the tide of homeless people coming to Bangor for shelter and services had petered out and that the city had no overarching strategy to address homelessness.
A handful of people cited that article during public comment and pointed out winter is fast approaching and homeless people will need to find alternatives to sleeping outside, likening it to a humanitarian crisis that warranted immediate action. Others called for the city to improve its communication with residents and to use some of its $20.4 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act to build affordable housing.
“We are begging you to pay attention,” said Deborah Johnson, the administrative vice chair of the Greater Bangor Democratic Committee, which held a panel about the housing crisis last Saturday.
The city saw a 20 percent increase in the number of people living outside between October 2020 and last month. Pastor Terry Dinkins, who runs a warming center at the Mansion Church on Center Street during the winter, anticipated the number would continue to rise as colder weather set in and fewer facilities could offer shelter because of staffing shortages.
“We’re going to do our part, but I don’t think it’s enough,” he told the Bangor City Council. “I think it’s going to be a lot more than we had last year, and my fear is those who are unable to find a place to go will die on our streets this year.”
The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter will not open its warming center until Dec. 21 this year due to staffing shortages, but plans to increase its capacity to allow up to 35 people to stay there, said Executive Director Boyd Kronholm.
The city has set a tentative date to to do an “enhanced debris sweep” and clean out trash from encampments all over Bangor, during which outreach workers will help homeless residents connect to social services and help them figure out a shelter plan for the winter, city manager Debbie Laurie said in a council workshop earlier on Monday evening.
Those staying at the encampments will not be forced to move, said Patty Hamilton, the city’s public health director.
Bangor is short on housing for both renters and first-time homebuyers due to low inventory and fierce competition for a limited number of units, while current tenants have seen their rents rise by hundreds of dollars.
The city planning board approved two new 60-unit subdivisions last week, but neither is slated to be complete until next fall at the earliest. Penquis is still in the process of receiving federal funding to redevelop the Pine Tree Inn on Cleveland Street into 36 efficiency units, according to housing development director Jason Bird.
Bangor doesn’t track residential vacancy rates, but the city’s downtown district has zero residential vacancies, according to Betsy Lundy, the executive director of the Downtown Bangor Partnership.
“Things are filled before they’re even vacant,” she said.
State Rep. Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, said she heard from three people with different landlords who were told their monthly rents would suddenly increase by 30 percent, despite their apartments’ dilapidated conditions, and who were facing homelessness because they couldn’t afford the higher rents.
“This is in tandem with the issue of our unhoused neighbors,” she said. “We don’t want to increase the number of our unhoused neighbors.”
Doug Dunbar, who leads the advocacy coalition Penobscot County Cares, asked the council to consider using some of its federal American Rescue Plan Act money to build more affordable housing and fund mental health and addiction treatment.
Specifically, he urged councilors to use some of the $20.4 million package to construct a shelter village. Cities like Salem, Oregon, and Burlington, Vermont, have built or are building such villages to house their homeless populations in congregate pod-like structures.
But the Statewide Homeless Council advisory group doesn’t consider shelter villages a viable option because there’s not much data to determine their efficacy, nor would they withstand Maine’s cold climate, Laurie said, though Burlington’s pods would be climate-controlled.
Dunbar disputed Laurie’s assessment.
“It is absolutely an evidence-based approach,” he said of the shelter villages. “We’ve never had this much money, and we’ve never had problems to this extent.”