A growing homeless encampment called Tent City behind the Hope House in Bangor is one of the more visible symptoms of the city's growing homeless population. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A Levant-based nonprofit aimed at providing housing for homeless people received $25,000 from the Penobscot County Commissioners’ federal COVID-19 relief funding this week.

Robin and Jonathan Sandau, co-founders of Design Wall Housing, said the organization’s goal is to house people who are homeless and use that housing as a foundation for personal growth.

Design Wall Housing is one of several organizations now working to aid Bangor’s homeless population, which has ballooned in recent years and become increasingly more visible as encampments for those without housing throughout the city. The city’s growing homelessness crisis ultimately drew a federal disaster relief team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to Bangor to rapidly rehouse people experiencing homelessness.

“We need to provide a place where people can put their feet down, grow, figure out who they are and connect with Design Wall Housing’s volunteer team that will help them learn skills they missed along the way,” Robin Sandau said.

While the nonprofit has only been in operation for two years — and much of the organization’s progress was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic — Sandau said the couple began developing the organization in 2012. At the time, they were both working as case managers and saw the level of homelessness, both locally and nationally,

“This problem is way too big to be handled by one agency, program or nonprofit.” Sandau said. “It’s going to take all of us.”

Once the organization purchases a building and turns it into housing, Sandau anticipates the monthly rent will be set below fair market value, which is determined by HUD. This year, the fair market value for a one-bedroom apartment is $907.

The organization’s roughly 30 volunteers will also help tenants connect with additional resources they may need, such as mental health care or substance use treatment, and help fill the gaps overwhelmed caseworkers may not be able to meet, Sandau said.

“The amount of homelessness that’s in our beautiful city, county, state and country is growing so fast that we can’t get people through school fast enough to serve them,” Sandau said. “Our case managers are burdened with huge caseloads. Sometimes you spend 15 minutes a month with a person, and that’s not enough to help them.”

The $25,000 from the commissioners will be used to help purchase one of Bangor’s several vacant buildings and turn it into housing, but the organization doesn’t have a property in mind or under contract yet, she said. This would be the organization’s first property and renovation project.

Ultimately, the nonprofit hopes to raise $150,000 by the end of 2023 through grants, donations and fundraisers. So far, it has raised $50,000, including the $25,000 from Penobscot County.

Design Wall Housing’s money was just a piece of the roughly $175,000 in awards the commissioners distributed across three parties on Tuesday. The money comes from the $29.5 million Penobscot County received through the American Rescue Plan Act Congress passed in March 2021 to help states and local governments recover from the pandemic.

Penquis CAP and the Maine Discovery Museum are among the organizations that have already received some of the county’s pot.

The commissioners also gave the Bangor Public Library $100,000 and the town of Millinocket received about $50,000 in this latest round of awards on Tuesday.

Bangor Library Director Ben Treat said the library plans to use the funds to support a two-year social worker position the library is adding. That person will be tasked with assisting people who are homeless and spend time in the library.

Millinocket will use its $49,999 to upgrade the town office’s elevator, which is the only accessible entrance to the building, Town Manager Peter Jamieson said.

“Given the troubles we’ve had with the inability to keep it functioning over the past one or two years, this modernization will help us allow access to our building to anyone with mobility impairments,” Jamieson said.

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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...