Last week’s closure of the homeless encampment along Valley Avenue spearheaded by a federal disaster team could significantly change how Bangor approaches homelessness, if the city adopts the team’s techniques.
In December 2022, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins called on a federal disaster relief team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help Bangor rein in its homelessness crisis, which grew during the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn’t stopped.
The HUD team, which specializes in rapidly rehousing people experiencing homelessness, has guided a local group of more than 40 people from 10-plus city and state agencies. Over three months, the team focused its efforts on finding permanent housing for 20 people living in rudimentary shelters in the wooded area along Valley Avenue.
Nineteen of those 20 people had entered permanent or temporary housing by April 11, according to City Manager Debbie Laurie. The city then closed the encampment and public works crews spent more than two days cleaning up the debris and trash left behind.
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The effort to house every person living in an encampment before dismantling it is a stark difference from the city’s previous approach. Prior to HUD’s intervention, city workers simply pushed people out and cleaned up the encampments, though caseworkers may have offered to help people find warm places to stay during the winter. With no alternatives, the people would form another encampment elsewhere.
With the Valley Avenue encampment closed, Laurie said the team of local outreach workers will soon revisit what worked well and what needs to be adjusted, then turn its attention to others who need housing help. This could include other encampments, such as the one behind the Hope House, or people who are living in shelters or their vehicles, or are couch surfing.
Laurie said the guidance from the HUD team has been “invaluable” for local agencies and the city because “we gained a greater understanding of our respective challenges, needs and expectations.”
The permanent housing of nearly all Valley Avenue encampment residents and cleaning up the area shows “that if everyone is willing to talk and listen to one another, set aside opinions and not hold onto what has or hasn’t happened in the past, that our missions are far more aligned than we initially thought,” Laurie said.
“All of that hard work has resulted in the best outcome where everyone wins,” she said.
Before the city and local agencies partnered with the HUD team, there was no coordinated or prolonged assistance to help people enter permanent housing.
In July 2018, city officials dismantled a camp of about 40 people living under the Interstate 395 overpass after a series of arsons and violent assaults, including a stabbing. Workers also cleared the trees and brush that provided shelter and privacy for those living there to deter people from returning, though that didn’t work for long.
In November 2021, the city evicted another encampment under the same overpass citing concerns that emergency vehicles couldn’t reach the site if someone there needed help. Three people who were forced out of the encampment, Dylan Smith, Andrew Allen and Tim Tuttle, later died after taking shelter in an abandoned house on Union Street that caught fire.
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The repeated breaking up of the I-395 encampment later led people to settle along Valley Avenue. People also migrated to the wooded area behind the Hope House Health and Living Center, commonly called “Tent City,” which is now the city’s largest homeless encampment.
Clearing encampments and evicting people who are homeless without providing assistance contradicts the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ guidelines to help communities respond to encampments.
The Interagency Council on Homelessness acknowledged that local leadership are often pressured by calls for swift action, but permanent, sustainable solutions to homelessness take time and investment to achieve.
“When people’s housing and service needs are left unaddressed, encampments may appear again in another neighborhood or even in the same place they had previously been,” the guidelines read.
While simply clearing an encampment can temporarily remove an eyesore, doing so without providing coordinated assistance to get people into housing does not reduce homelessness.
In fact, it can lead to adverse health outcomes, exacerbate racial disparities, cause traumatic stress and disconnect homeless people from the services they need, according to the Interagency Council on Homelessness.
A study released April 10 by the American Medical Association found involuntarily displacing people experiencing homelessness who inject drugs may increase overdose deaths and hospitalizations while decreasing rates of people who begin medical treatment for opioid use disorder.
The study explained when people are forced out of encampments against their will and not connected to housing or services, they often lose personal belongings, medications, identification cards and a sense of community. This can be especially damaging for people who inject drugs, as they may lose access to sterile injection equipment, naloxone and medications for opioid use disorder.