AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers are considering a plan backed by the city of Bangor to turn buildings on the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center campus in Bangor into supportive housing for people suffering from homelessness and mental illness.
The plan, being championed by Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, is one in a long line of proposals for the largely vacant campus off State Street dating back to 1895. Ideas for it have included housing for veterans and expanding the Penobscot County jail onto the grounds.
The current one is aimed at addressing the city’s homelessness crisis and a related housing shortage by creating transitional and supportive housing for people with mental illnesses. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills has not committed to the idea and it would likely be years away, but the state has said it could back housing there if more study bears out the need.
Baldacci’s bill comes after a state-hired consultant found late last year that two buildings on the Dorothea Dix campus have fallen into deep disrepair and should be demolished.
The state of the buildings, Pooler Pavilion and Hedin Hall, came to light because Bangor officials had raised the idea of using some of the psychiatric center’s vacant space as a warming center, something the state deemed unsafe.
“The new debate should be how do we work together and collaborate as a community to make it an even more valuable resource for health care and mental health care in particular for the State of Maine,” Baldacci said in an email.
His proposal would direct the state to organize a group to review structures on the campus, identify those that should be demolished or rehabilitated and discuss setting up supportive housing. The group would include representatives from the city, Northern Light Health, St. Joseph Hospital, Penobscot Community Health Center, the state’s budget department and the superintendent of Dorothea Dix.
The Democratic governor’s administration testified neutrally on the measure at a legislative hearing earlier this week, but Anya Trundy, the chief of legislative and strategic operations for DAFS, suggested the budget department could support the idea with some tweaks.
Namely, Trundy said her department should instead organize the group, and language in Baldacci’s proposal should be broadened in case the buildings on campus do not lend themselves to housing, so “the door to alternative uses should be left open.”
In testimony supporting the measure, Bangor City Manager Deborah Laurie said results of past state studies on the condition of buildings there “were not widely shared or discussed.” She said about 30 undeveloped acres there would be an ideal site for supportive housing with transit routes and green space nearby.
City Councilor Clare Davitt said determining “what next steps could be is really important” with the facility, particularly for housing given the need for more beds. Sean Faircloth, the executive director of Together Place Peer Run Recovery Center in Bangor, said he likes Baldacci’s idea, as his recovery center’s housing co-operative needs “so many more units.”
“Substance use is key and housing people is key, but sometimes [mental health] housing gets lost in the mix,” Faircloth said.