Craig Stevens, 53, checks his messages while he waits along the side of Venture Way on the edge of Tent City for his ride to pick him up for work early in the morning on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Stevens, who has been homeless since 2018, currently lives in the Hope House and works 60 hours a week for a contractor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Craig Stevens waited for a ride to work on Friday during a cold September morning, just as he does most days, smoking a cigarette and watching the sunrise. He stood by the side of the road on the fringes of “Tent City,” the growing homeless encampment on Bangor’s west side.

Stevens, 53, has worked in various trade jobs throughout Maine since he was 18. He currently works 60 hours a week for a contractor building a $1 million home in Mariaville, but he has been homeless for the past four years.

He has watched the region’s homeless population, particularly within Tent City, explode in that time.

“This is ridiculous. It was never this way,” Stevens said.

“I used to come up here for solace. In the four years I’ve been around, this has transformed exponentially in a bad way. I’m not saying these people are bad people, but some have real issues and they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. All hope is lost.”

Craig Stevens walks along Venture Way in Bangor to catch his ride to work on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Born in Fort Kent, Stevens grew up in Portage Lake and spent most of his life in northern Maine. He earned his GED in 1987 and began working at a lumber mill after his high school girlfriend became pregnant when he was 18.

He has worked continuously since then, bouncing between lumber mills and railroad companies, until he was laid off in 2013 following the derailment and explosion of a 72-car crude oil freight train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a disaster that killed 47 people.

“Things went south after that,” Stevens said. “I was drinking too much, and money was tight, and everything fell apart.”

He came to Bangor to live and work with his son for a while until he was able to live in transitional housing in Orrington with a girlfriend. That ended in 2018 when his relationship dissolved and he lost his job after coming to work intoxicated.

He then came to Tent City.

He set up his tent apart from others until he noticed his things disappearing when he went to work. So he decided to live in the Hope House shelter just down the hill, where he now spends each night in a dorm with four others. There, he has access to a bathroom and shower and he’s able to secure his belongings.

“Nothing disappears, and that means everything, because I can go to work and know with confidence that everything will be there when I get back,” Stevens said. “When I get transitional housing I’ll be happier because I’ll have a door, lock and my own room. I can acquire things and never have to worry about leaving.”

While he makes about $700 each week in his job, Stevens said that work can be unsteady. He doesn’t know what project he’ll work on next and what the hours or pay will be.

Despite making an income, Stevens said it’s difficult to save money for housing when he has to buy all three of his meals. He misses breakfast and dinner at the Hope House because he’s at work when they’re served, and the facility doesn’t save food for people who miss meals. Residents also can’t bring in outside food or cook in the facility.

“It costs a lot to eat on the run,” he said.

Working 12 hours each day also makes it difficult for him to connect with services in Bangor that could help him look for apartments or access transitional housing and other resources.

“I can’t be on the phone all day,” he said. “It’s hard to build a house with a phone in your hand, and I don’t take days off because I committed to my boss. It’s harder for a working person to get help.”

Stevens said his dream is to save enough money to get a home and visit his daughter — one of his four children and two grandchildren — in Washington state.

“I’ve worked my whole life and raised a family since I was 18,” he said. “I’d like to go see a few things I’ve never seen.”

Though he spends his nights at the Hope House, Stevens said he’d like to see conditions change in Tent City, where he spends most of his free time with friends Jody and Cherie Mackin.

The Mackins live in a part of Tent City they refer to as “the suburbs,” as it’s the portion where residents who don’t use drugs congregate. The residents in the area also pride themselves on keeping their sites tidy and clean.

The larger portion of Tent City where people who use drugs live is on the other side of the main dirt road that snakes through the encampment. Stevens and the Mackins refer to that road as the Mason-Dixon Line.

Stevens said there needs to be a larger effort to help unhoused people access mental health support and recovery services.

Craig Stevens waits for his ride to work early in the morning on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Additionally, Stevens said, many living in Tent City have outstanding warrants for offenses such as unpaid fines. Allowing people to expunge those warrants by completing community service such as cleaning up Tent City, he said, would help improve the area’s sanitation while allowing people to free themselves of the fear they’ll go to jail anytime the police arrive.

Stevens also wants others to better understand what it’s like to be homeless.

“I think everybody should experience homelessness for a year,” Stevens said. “It costs a lot more than people think it does, and it can happen to anyone. It’s not a choice, and it’s a public health issue.”

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...