When Brenna Jones was in high school, she slept in her car, spent nights in Husson University dorms and participated in as many extracurriculars as she could to get more time in her warm, safe school.
Now a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maine in Orono, the Mount Desert Island native is interviewing homeless people with the goal of identifying trends and proposing solutions that could help reduce homelessness in Bangor and beyond. She is about halfway through her research and will present her findings at a Wednesday event on campus.
Jones’ talk will come a day after Bangor closes one of the city’s largest homeless encampments. The city found housing for 20 people living at the Valley Avenue encampment with help from a disaster relief team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The team was called in by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to help Bangor address its growing homelessness crisis.
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While she grappled with unstable housing in high school with little to no support from adults, Jones said she wasn’t interested in studying homelessness until she started working at Hannaford in college and found many coworkers lacked secure housing.
Many of her colleagues worked 40 hours each week, but weren’t making enough to afford housing in the area. They also weren’t able to access the vouchers and other support they needed because of their full-time employment status, she said.
“It’s difficult to constantly hear about other people’s horrible experiences and feeling powerless to help them,” Jones said. “It’s also nice to know I wasn’t alone in my experiences because when I was in high school, I didn’t know anyone who experienced homelessness.”
Jones has interviewed 10 people with no or unstable housing in the Bangor area, Waterville, Brunswick and Knox County, but plans to interview 20 by the end of the summer, she said. Despite the difficult conversations, Jones said she has found people in precarious housing situations are more comfortable talking to her because she was in their position.
Jones’ mother lost their home when she was in eighth grade, leading Jones to move in with her middle school boyfriend and his family. Her parents later moved out of the area. She got her own apartment during the school year with help from her father. Jones couldn’t stay in the apartment, however, because the heat wouldn’t go higher than 55 degrees.
“On a typical day, I’d wake up in a Husson dorm room during the school year because it was warmer there and usually someone would be willing to give me food and let me charge my phone,” she said. “I’d wake up at about 4:30 a.m. so I could drive back to Mount Desert Island and get McDonald’s on the way for a few bucks.”
Jones fed herself with the $25 weekly allowance her father sent her plus any money she made during the summer. She also kept the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in her school locker and used her car as a refrigerator during the winter, she said. She even kept a blanket in her locker and took naps when she could.
“Some people wondered how I kept up with so many extracurriculars, but it was just somewhere to be at the time,” she said. “Where else was I going to go?”
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After school, she’d drive back to Husson University and find someone who would let her stay in their dorm room, often picking up a large pizza on the way that would last her several days.
Despite these daily challenges, she earned a 3.8 GPA and was accepted into the University of Maine’s Honors College. In fall 2022, the McGillicuddy Humanities Center named Jones an undergraduate research fellow and gave her $8,000 over two semesters to support her research.
“There are more financial and emotional resources and community in college,” she said. “Being able to have housing and do research has changed my entire life. It helps me not feel alone whereas high school was very lonely and isolating.”
Everyone she has talked to so far, regardless of whether they live in an encampment or in a shelter, has unique experiences, struggles and circumstances. Some lost their housing when their rent suddenly increased to unaffordable levels, she said. Others have physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from working, forcing them to rely on disability benefits that aren’t enough to cover rent and their other expenses. More face credit score requirements, high housing application fees or landlords who won’t accept housing vouchers.
Though her research is far from finished, Jones’ suggestions for Bangor and other communities with growing unhoused populations include capping rents, restricting evictions and encouraging more subsidized housing.
Aside from policy changes and bureaucratic action, Jones said she’d like Bangor residents to change the way they think and speak about anyone who is homeless, as she frequently hears Mainers call unhoused individuals lazy.
“They’re human beings with their own histories, hopes and dreams,” she said. “Some went to college and would like to use their degrees. They’re just like anyone else, they just ran up against the broken system we have, and it can happen to anyone.”