A Washington state company that builds portable homes is pitching its services as a solution to Bangor’s homelessness crisis while the city tries to spur new housing development and reduce the number of people sleeping outside. However, officials say Bangor faces obstacles to immediately implementing a so-called shelter village.
Pallet, a Seattle-based public benefit corporation, partnered with a handful of cities like Boston; Burlington, Vermont; and Salem, Oregon, to build “shelter villages” where homeless people live in pod-like, 100-square-foot structures overseen by homelessness service providers.
The structures are a temporary housing solution for homeless people while they seek services and more permanent housing, and can be constructed in as little as two days, Pallet sales manager Benjamin Simons said in a presentation before the Bangor City Council’s government operations committee on Monday.
The proposed shelter village would be the first in Maine if passed. Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque announced Monday that his city, Lewiston and Androscoggin County officials were in early talks with Pallet to build 48 shelter village units to address the housing shortage in that area as well.
Bangor faces a dearth of affordable housing for both renters and would-be homeowners, in tandem with an increasing homeless population that has grown 20 percent in two years.
The city has made a handful of recent efforts to spur new development, like changing zoning to allow for denser housing and reducing parking and minimum lot size requirements. Bangor also contracted with nonprofit Built For Zero after a previous effort to work with other cities to stem the tide of homeless people flocking to the city for services petered out.
Although homelessness advocates like those in the Penobscot County Cares coalition have pushed for months for Bangor to consider Pallet’s services to house the 170 people living in tents and outdoor shelters, officials expressed more muted support.
Two councilors pointed out in the meeting with Simons that scant data exist to demonstrate the shelter villages’ success rate. They also pointed out that the council would need to pass an ordinance and find an appropriate area in the city to host a shelter village before allowing one in Bangor.
“The problem is that we are struggling to find enough people to work [who could oversee the shelter villages],” said Councilor Dina Yacoubagha, who does support the idea as a temporary solution to housing.
Jamie Beck, a Bangor resident who runs a nonprofit that helps homeless people find housing, said she was concerned about whether people would be able to transition out of the shelter village into more permanent homes, because the city lacks an overall comprehensive strategy to build more housing.
“This could be a good segue way while we’re creating housing, but we’ve got to think about the long term,” Beck said of the shelter villages.
Wellspring, the Shaw House youth shelter and the Hope House offer transitional housing, according to a list of Bangor-area service providers Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell gave the government operations committee earlier this month.
Councilor Clare Davitt pointed to the recent zoning changes and a 2019 citywide housing report as evidence of the city’s ongoing efforts to address the housing shortage.
“There are all sorts of parts and pieces that the city has already put in place,” she said, adding that she too supported the shelter village as a temporary housing solution.
Bangor city staff plans to contact Androscoggin and Lewiston-area officials for advice on getting a Pallet village in the city, and have started asking homeless service providers for feedback and location ideas, O’Donnell said in an email to the Bangor Daily News.