Homelessness in Bangor has become such a crisis that a HUD team is taking a disaster relief approach to the problem.
In this Nov. 24, 2021, file photo, a homeless encampment is seen under the Interstate 395 bridge. The city cleared that encampment in 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Homelessness in Bangor has become such a crisis that a federal emergency management team is taking a disaster relief approach to the problem.

The group from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, called a “technical assistance team,” has been working with city officials since late last year. The team is essentially a disaster relief group that has worked to rapidly rehouse unsheltered people in larger metropolitan areas, including Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego, Bangor City Manager Debbie Laurie said.

The city of Bangor is working with a HUD team to combat the worsening homelessness crisis.
Debbie Laurie, newly appointed Bangor city manager at City Hall. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The team’s efforts mirror those the Federal Emergency Management Agency deploys in the wake of natural disasters.

For months if not years, Bangor officials have lacked a clear strategy to deal with a burgeoning population experiencing homelessness despite spending at least $10 million in city, state and federal funds in the first 21 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those funds were used for rental assistance; funding for outside organizations to run warming centers, distribute food or make shelter improvements; and homeless encampment cleanups.

A city effort toward a regional solution to homelessness with surrounding towns that would have eased the burden on Bangor’s services petered out after just a few meetings. And there’s limited coordination between the city, the multitude of service providers working with the homeless population and the independent organizations like the Mansion Church that have stepped in to help.

A snowballing of issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed homelessness in Bangor to a crisis, making outside assistance necessary to restart the system, Laurie said.

“The homelessness response system was tenuous at best. It was bubblegum and chicken wire,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, everything in essence came to a halt.”

In early 2022, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins met with Bangor officials to discuss the city’s homelessness crisis. As a result, Collins asked HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge to send homelessness experts to Bangor to help devise a solution, Collins said.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins asked HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge to send a team to Bangor to help the city with its homelessness crisis.
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia Fudge, speaks at the annual Freedman’s Bank Forum at the Department of the Treasury in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Federal officials arrived in Bangor on Sept. 20, 2022, to discuss options, one day after the Bangor Daily News published a story detailing how the city lacks a clear and effective strategy to reduce homelessness.

That initial meeting led to the “A-Team” of federal homelessness experts being sent to Bangor to mitigate the crisis using an emergency management approach, a marked difference from what the city has seen for decades, Laurie said.

In mid-December, city officials and social services providers met with the federal team to launch Bangor’s response, which Laurie said was focused on clearing encampments.

“Our initiative is to close encampments and work together to set up a new community structure and process to house unsheltered people,” she told Bangor city councilors Tuesday.

She said the framework is first to identify people experiencing homelessness and open apartment units or other housing options, move people into those units, and then clear encampments to return the land “back to the public.”

Bangor has cleared out encampments multiple times in recent years. In December 2021, at least two of the three people who died in a fire that ripped through an abandoned Union Street building had been evicted from an encampment the city cleared.  

The HUD group identified that the city needed a “win.”

“The immediate recommendation is a need for an emergency management approach to solve the problem as encampments differ from housing others, Laurie said in a report. “It was determined the city needed a ‘win’ in the community by closing one highly visible encampment by housing all the folks at once and then re-claiming the space so a new encampment wouldn’t return.”

The group is first moving to house all the people who are in the highly visible encampment along Valley Avenue across from the Kenduskeag Stream walking trail. There are between 60 and 70 people total in the city’s two largest encampments, Laurie said.

The team also will provide more intensive support to people experiencing homelessness including mental health services and whatever else may be needed for them to stay in permanent housing, Laurie said.

Bangor’s assistance from HUD ends March 31. Until then, the city will continue connecting people in encampments with permanent housing, Laurie said. Then, the city will piece together what worked and what barriers remain for effective rapid response, she said.

Homelessness in Bangor has become such a crisis that a HUD team is taking a disaster relief approach to the problem.
In this Sept. 15, 2022, file photo, a look into the growing homeless encampment called Tent City behind the Hope House in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Before the HUD team leaves, Laurie said she hopes it helps the city develop a longer range plan, although part of that work is already underway with Bangor’s initiatives to add to its housing portfolio.

“If we don’t break the cycle, we are going to continue. So what can we do to invest from a long-term perspective, to help break that cycle, while simultaneously looking at what we can do differently today,” Laurie said. “We’re trying to find ways to invest and help solve the issue and break the cycle.”

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Sawyer Loftus

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...

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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...