In just the two weeks after closing the Valley Avenue encampment, Bangor police responded to 54 vagrancy complaints.
Homeless people hang out at Peirce Park next to the Bangor library on Harlow Street in Bangor on April 27, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor police asked more than 50 people who were homeless to relocate from private or unsafe property in the two weeks after the city closed a sprawling homeless encampment last month.

The encampment closed after more than 10 local and state agencies worked to house the 20 people who were living in rudimentary shelters along Valley Avenue. That effort was led by a federal disaster relief team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Vagrancy calls are usually made when someone experiencing homelessness has settled on private property or an unsafe area, like near train tracks. Sometimes there’s additional unacceptable behavior involved, like public intoxication or disorderly conduct.

Bangor police responded to 54 vagrancy calls between April 12 and 26, the two-week span after the Valley Avenue encampment closed on April 11, according to Sgt. Jason McAmbley, a Bangor Police Department spokesperson.

The more than 50 calls in a two-week period is a noticeable uptick from the department’s usual vagrancy call volume, which has steadily increased in tandem with the city’s swelling homeless population.

Officer Elizabeth Brunton Ashe, Bangor police department’s community resource officer, said she has noticed people who are homeless settling in new spots since the Valley Avenue encampment closed, and others seem to be rediscovering properties that previously hosted encampments.

“I’m seeing more people in parks, along the waterfront, and by the train tracks. I haven’t seen them there for a long time,” she said. “When people are asked to move, they have to go somewhere.”

Last year, Bangor police responded to 796 vagrancy calls, averaging about 15 calls per week or 30 calls in a two-week span, according to McAmbley. That was a steep increase from the 572 vagrancy calls in 2021, which averaged about 11 per week. In 2020, Bangor police received 496 vagrancy calls, averaging about nine per week.

Once police connect with someone, Brunton Ashe said officers will ask the person to move elsewhere and direct them to services where they can access food, shelter or medical care, if necessary.

“We try to always push resources before jumping to a criminal charge, but we still need to change a behavior, which may be camping in a business alcove,” she said. “We do come across some people who are belligerent or obstinate.”

Officers will charge someone with a crime if the person refuses to move or change unacceptable behavior, Brunton Ashe said, but “people are going to be faster to give you a resource card than a summons.”

Bangor officers hand out cards to anyone experiencing homelessness that list various resources they may need, including shelters, hot meals and mental health and substance use services.

While vagrancy calls come from across the city, some popular spots for people to settle are parks after they’ve closed, private property downtown and building entryways and vestibules, McAmbley said.  

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.

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.  

While the department has seen more calls since the Valley Avenue encampment closed, McAmbley and Brunton Ashe said they hope this new approach of housing people before cleaning up an encampment will be successful.

The city closed the homeless encampment in the wooded area along Valley Avenue in Bangor on April 11 after moving all but one of the 20 people who were living there into permanent or temporary housing, according to Debbie Laurie, Bangor city manager. The closure was the result of more than 40 people from nearly a dozen local and state agencies working together for more than three months under the guidance of a federal disaster relief team.

Ten people from nine households moved into permanent housing on the day the encampment closed and have remained there since, Laurie said.

Another six people from three households transitioned to temporary housing when the encampment closed. Of those, three remained housed while the other three “chose to leave, but remain in contact with the team members who worked directly with them and are engaged in pursuing permanent housing,” Laurie said.

The remaining one person left the encampment on the day it closed and told their caseworker they found a new outdoor location to live temporarily, Laurie said.

Guidance from several national organizations aimed at reducing homelessness in the United States agree that dismantling encampments without providing assistance does not reduce homelessness.

Encampments can be unsafe, unsanitary and unsightly, but merely dismantling the communities can be costly, counterproductive and harm an area’s homeless population, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ guidelines. Additionally, another encampment will likely form elsewhere, continuing the problem rather than solving it.

Clearing encampments without providing support to those living there 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.

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...