The group of outreach workers who housed nearly 20 people living along Valley Avenue in Bangor hope to repeat the feat at the city’s other major homeless encampment.
More than 40 people from 10-plus local and state agencies are working together to house those living in rudimentary shelters in a wooded area behind the Hope House Health and Living Center. The sprawling homeless encampment, which ballooned in recent years in tandem with the city’s unhoused population, is often called Tent City.
The local group learned housing tactics from a federal disaster relief team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that specializes in quickly finding housing for people who are homeless. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins called on the team to help Bangor rein in its growing homelessness crisis.
The federal team guided the local workers through the process of finding housing for 19 of the 20 people who were living in an encampment along Valley Avenue before closing and cleaning up the area last month.
Local outreach workers are trying to duplicate the success they had in housing the people living along Valley Avenue, which marked a turning point in how the city addresses and assists those experiencing homelessness. Prior to HUD’s intervention, city workers typically cleaned up the encampments and forced people living there to move along. With no support, the people would form other encampments elsewhere.
The group launched its next mission of housing those living in Tent City this week. The first step is identifying who lives in the encampment and connecting with people individually to build trust. That daily work also involves finding who’s in the same household and if anyone owns pets, as that changes a person’s housing options.
So far, the team has connected with more than 40 unhoused people who want to participate and gain housing, double the number willing to work with the outreach team from the Valley Avenue encampment, according to Debbie Laurie, Bangor city manager.
Laurie said she suspects the group’s success at the Valley Avenue encampment helped build its credibility, increasing the likelihood of people trusting and working with the outreach workers.
“They feel good that so many people are engaging early on and willing to participate,” Laurie said. “Every day they get a few more folks to engage. Maybe today someone talked who wasn’t willing to talk yesterday. It’s a process, but they’re committed.”
Next, the group will determine who needs legal documents, such as IDs, or medical diagnoses to gain housing or housing vouchers. Finally, the outreach workers will get people enrolled in housing assistance programs and work individually with each person to find what housing works best for them.
Laurie said the group has an “emphasis on permanent housing,” but said people may be housed in a variety of settings depending on their needs and what’s available.
“We’ll likely have some folks in temporary housing, but housing options will be provided,” she said. “The team will do everything they can to find the right housing for everyone and make sure they have the supports in place to be successful and remain housed.”
Though housing units, especially affordable housing, in Bangor are sparse, Laurie said she believes the group will be able to find housing and housing vouchers for everyone. This is, in part, due to the fact that some people may be housed outside Bangor if they have connections elsewhere in Maine and would be willing to move there.
Other local agencies have offered help to the outreach team after its success at Valley Avenue, Laurie said. Those organizations include recovery service providers; Partners for Peace for those who have experienced domestic violence; Preble Street, which caters to veterans in need; and Shaw House for youth under 20.
Faith-based groups are also working on providing people with “welcome home baskets” that have kitchen items, including a pot, pan and place settings, that people may need.
Another area agency will provide showers, so anyone who is unhoused can “clean up before going to look at an apartment where they might start their new life,” Laurie said.
While the workers have been able to identify and connect with people living in Tent City quickly, Laurie said they will likely house a few people at a time. This will help avoid the scramble of trying to house everyone at once.
Laurie said the team hasn’t set a deadline for when it would like to have everyone housed and close the encampment.
While the group connects with people in Tent City, Laurie said workers are connecting with people living in small encampments as they pop up throughout Bangor.
After assisting people living in homeless encampments, Laurie said the group will next determine how it can assist people who are precariously housed, like those living in their vehicle or couch-surfing, Laurie said. Additionally, outreach workers want to determine how they can move people through the shelter system faster.
“I believe the process we’ve set in motion is sustainable beyond two encampments,” Laurie said. “It’s still early, but everyone is committed and they’re hitting the ground running. There’s real hope.”