People eat a Thanksgiving meal together in the Mansion Church in Bangor on Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 2022. (Sawyer Loftus | BDN)

James Bodge has not had a consistent place to sleep since last winter. On Thanksgiving, Bodge sat at a table near the front door of the Mansion Church.

Bodge, 39, has been homeless on and off for several years. He has an associate’s degree and was taking classes at the University of Maine until he walked out of class at age 25 due to mental health issues, he said.

As he waited for the church’s Thursday evening meal to be served, he sat in his chair with fingers crossed and thumbs moving as he talked about the difficulties he has faced.

“I’m trying to keep a positive attitude — that’s all you can do,” Bodge said. “People look at you differently. I just want them to look at me like a human being. A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck, so it could happen to anyone.”

For about 10 years, the Mansion Church has provided a Thanksgiving meal to those that need one, pastor Terry Dinkins said. This year, instead of making the food, someone donated food made by Governor’s Restaurant and Bakery, he said. Largely, the meals go to Bangor’s surging homeless population.

Volunteers prepare a Thanksgiving meal in the Mansion Church in Bangor on Nov. 24, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

The Mansion Church is one of the organizations in the city working to help provide food, clothes, and temporary shelter to those facing homelessness.

Over the past two years, the unhoused population has grown from about 140 people in 2020 to at least 170 people in August. That does not include those sleeping in Bangor’s two adult homeless shelters and one youth shelter.

Bodge has stayed at the Mansion Church for the last three weeks because of the community of volunteers and others that come through the doors, he said.

The volunteers, like Cheryl Philbrook and her husband, are familiar to many unhoused people in Bangor. They volunteer almost every night at the church and were once homeless themselves, Philbrook said.

“There’s a couple of people that have already come here, to the warming center, that recognize me and my husband and they feel safe because they know us from the streets,” she said. “We hung out with these people many a night.”

For Philbrook and Dinkins, homelessness is the most important issue in Bangor, one that the pastor said he wished the city used more of its COVID-19 relief funds to help solve, he said.

Bangor directed at least $10 million in city, state, and federal funds to address homelessness and related problems in the first 21 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city has lacked an overall strategy to address the growth in the number of people without housing.

One effort the city spearheaded was to engage surrounding towns in easing the burden on Bangor’s services and crafting a regional solution petered out after just a few meetings. There has been limited coordination between the city, the multitude of service providers working with the homeless population, and organizations like the Mansion Church that have stepped in to help.

“The number of homelessness this year has been the most I’ve ever seen,” Dinkins said. “I do see some good things happening though.”

Those good things include helping connect more people with housing outside Bangor, he said. For example, last week his church purchased a bus ticket for a man that had a place to stay in Boston, Dinkins said. They only send people outside of Bangor if the church knows they have somewhere to stay, he said.

Dinkins said he thinks that a combination of a housing shortage, drug addiction, mental illness, and the rising cost of living have all contributed to that growing number.

The Mansion Church’s warming center, which first opened in March 2020, has been operating since Nov. 1 this year. Since then, Dinkins said there’s been an average of 15 to 20 people that stay the night.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...