Damien Jenkins, 18, an outreach volunteer with the Mansion Church, carries NARCAN nasal spray with him as he checks on people who are living in Tent City, the growing homeless encampment behind the Hope House in Bangor on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Each week, Damien Jenkins comes to Bangor’s largest homeless encampment with food, toiletries, clothing and other items people there might need. He wanders through the wooded area on the city’s west side, weaving between tents to check on people, whom he knows by name, and tell them food is available.

Just a few months ago, he was in their place. 

“It feels good to help my brothers and sisters I used to be homeless with,” Jenkins said. “Them seeing me doing well and helping to feed them, clothe them and take care of them, they realize I’ve changed and it gives them hope, because none of them thought I could get back on my feet.”

Damien Jenkins, 18, an outreach volunteer with the Mansion Church, peeks in a tent to check on someone in Tent City who was not responding to him on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Four months ago, Jenkins, 18, was homeless and overdosing regularly. Today, he has housing and has enrolled in a three-year Bible study program with dreams of becoming a youth pastor.

Jenkins said he decided to turn his life around after forming a bond with Terry Dinkins, pastor of the Mansion Church in Bangor, last winter. He now helps Dinkins on those regular trips to distribute food to those living in “Tent City.”

“You can see the impact he has,” Dinkins said. “Some other kids are starting to come to the church now because they look at Damien and say, ‘Wow, what a big change from where he was.’”

Jenkins’ path out of homelessness is unique, but those in Bangor’s expanding homeless population have no singular path to follow to find housing.

Jenkins said his life changed during his freshman year at Orono High School. That year, another student falsely accused him of threatening to “shoot up the school dance,” he said. He was suspended for three months and labeled a “threat to the school.”

He attended six high schools in two years, and the “threat to the school” label followed him, he said, making it difficult to start fresh. He dropped out after completing his sophomore year and became involved with “drugs, gangs and things I shouldn’t have,” he said.

Then 16, he left his parents’ house and stayed at the Shaw House youth shelter in Bangor. While he wasn’t living on the streets, Jenkins said his time there wasn’t pleasant, and he regularly used drugs and overdosed.

“Cops would show up, handcuff me, and I’d be overdosing in the back of a cruiser because I was too dangerous to be in an ambulance,” he said.

Jenkins said he was later evicted from the Shaw House when he was 17 for throwing a pillow at a staff member.

He met Dinkins last winter when he entered the Mansion Church’s warming center, seeking shelter from the grueling Maine winter.

“He seemed like he was desperate, but very cordial and polite,” Dinkins said. “He actually helped some people he knew and told them about what the Mansion Church offers.”

Jenkins and Dinkins formed a bond, and the pair would occasionally meet for coffee and pray together. Dinkins would give Jenkins rides to appointments.

Damien Jenkins, 18, an outreach volunteer with the Mansion Church, talks with Pastor Terry Dinkins (right) and Warner Strout after they served a hot meal to people living in Tent City in Bangor on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Around that time, Jenkins was staying in a “trap house” — where illicit drugs are purchased and used — in Bangor, where he had constant access to meth, heroin, ecstasy, molly, cocaine and acid, he said.

“When you do drugs as a kid, your mind is still developing so you don’t understand the risks,” he said. “My every day was thinking, ‘I have to find a way to get meth; I have to find a way to get money to get drugs. How can I get high to drain the thoughts and the pain?’”

One day, he asked someone there for heroin, but was given “pure fentanyl,” a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin. He overdosed almost immediately.

“I didn’t realize I had overdosed, but I was gone for 15 minutes and given Narcan eight times — both nasal and needle,” Jenkins said.

Though he has overdosed some 40 times, Jenkins said that overdose scared him, and he knew something had to change. He left the house and asked Dinkins for a tent, which the pastor supplied. The pair set it up in Bangor’s Coe Park. The following day, Jenkins asked Dinkins for help turning his life around.

Dinkins helped Jenkins find safe housing, get sober and repair his faith. Jenkins began working with Dinkins to distribute food, clothing and toiletries to Bangor’s homeless community, hold services at the church and organize the church’s other community outreach efforts.

Now, Jenkins said, he has been sober for four months.

“We don’t always see the results we want to see, but it’s amazing to see someone transform from who Damien was to who he is today,” Dinkins said. “He wants to have a successful, better life, and not everybody is like that or wants to do the work to get there.

“It’s not all peaches and cream. We’ve had our moments, but we’re able to talk through it and trust each other. It excites me to see that.”

Jenkins’ three-year Bible study program begins in January. He said his goal is to become a youth pastor to offer local teens the guidance and support he needed.

“I realized there’s a reason I was brought back every time I overdosed,” he said. “God has a better, bigger plan for me. I want to help the youth who are struggling to find themselves to better themselves and find God.”

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Kathleen O'Brien

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...