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That is what a Bangor city councilor said people wanted from the council in August, while it was discussing a misguided potential policy that would tie the ability to camp on public property with available space in local shelters.
But rather than focus on whether people are allowed to camp in public or not, city leaders need to keep working on ways to alleviate the need for people to be camping in the first place.
It means more affordable housing units. But it also means more housing development generally, to improve the regional housing availability and alleviate some of the downward pressure that is crowding people out of the market. It means more shelter space. It means more creative approaches like boarding houses. It means more support for mental health and substance use services. It means more public restroom facilities downtown.
And yes, it means more transitional housing to help people find stability. It has to be all of the above.
Bangor has taken some steps as of late by approving housing developments and eventually passing an amended ordinance to allow boarding houses in some areas of the city. The statewide implementation of Built For Zero, an effort to reduce homelessness, should lead to better data and coordination. But those are more long-term pieces of the puzzle. There is a clear and immediate need for more temporary housing heading into another Maine winter to help more people who can’t on won’t stay in existing shelters. There is an idea on the table, and there is a large amount of unspent federal funding that can be put to the rescue.
The idea is one that other municipalities have already embraced, with more considering it: shelter villages.
These collections of small and moveable structures, which can be heated and assembled quickly, have already been deployed in places like Burlington, Vermont. They aren’t going to solve homlessness in the area or fix the housing crisis overnight — no one thing will — but they can and should be part of the solution.
The city of Bangor and Penobscot County still have millions of dollars of American Rescue Plan Act funds, the city and region have clear (and clearly expressed) housing needs, and now councilors and commissioners have an idea that can help. Not solve things, but help.
“This could be a good segue way while we’re creating housing, but we’ve got to think about the long term,” Bangor resident Jamie Beck, who runs a nonprofit that connects homeless people to housing, told BDN reporter Lia Russell last week about the shelter village idea.
Leaders in Androscoggin County are embracing this idea with a proposal for dozens of these modular shelters.
“This solution is quick, it’s scalable, it’s inexpensive and it’s reusable, there’s some durability here,” said Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, according to TV station WGME. Androscoggin County officials have “appeared receptive to the overall plan,” according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.
Last week, a Bangor city official said that staff planned to contact officials in the Androscoggin area for advice on adding such a village, and had started asking homeless service providers for input and location ideas. This is encouraging work that must continue, and come to fruition.
“There are all sorts of parts and pieces that the city has already put in place,” Bangor City Councilor Clare Davitt told the BDN last week, and added that she also supported the shelter village as a temporary housing solution.
We understand that there are challenges, including staffing and location questions, to overcome. But if leaders in Androscoggin County can work to figure this out together on a regional basis, then this area can, too.