Bangor partnered with a team of experts less than a year ago to help address the city’s blooming homelessness crisis. After three months of work, a group of officials, police and social workers were able to clear an encampment of people from city-owned property along the Kenduskeag Stream.
Bangor City Manager Debbie Laurie described the work as successful because city officials worked with a team of disaster relief specialists hired by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to house people who had been living on land off Valley Avenue ahead of a popular canoe race on April 15.
Yet despite more than a dozen people working to rehouse a population that fluctuated between about 20 and 30 at the encampment, the work took longer than expected. The team struggled to find housing and landlords who would accept tenants with a history of homelessness. What’s more, the team did not actually find permanent housing for many people who called the Valley Avenue encampment home, records obtained by the Bangor Daily News show.
The BDN reviewed hundreds of pages of emails, meeting minutes, spreadsheets and notes compiled by members of the city and HUD team, obtained through a public records request. By the end of March, the records show the team found permanent housing for four of the 20 or so people who called Valley Avenue home.
By April 14, the city said a total of nine households had entered permanent housing, and three households found temporary housing. It’s not clear where the remaining people ended up. The city did not provide a precise number of how many people were actually housed in the end, saying a “household” could mean one or two people.
The goal was to find people permanent housing, which usually means an apartment with a lease. Temporary housing could mean hotels or a month-to-month rental arrangement.
The city doesn’t know how many people cleared out of the encampment have remained housed over the last six months. And despite receiving national help to address the encampment, continued efforts to house people living in a different encampment — Bangor’s largest — behind the Hope House Health and Living Center have gotten more difficult. That’s because Bangor area agencies no longer have the HUD team facilitating efforts, and the city has seen an influx in people experiencing homelessness, Laurie said in a recent interview.
One of the biggest successes of the Valley Avenue work was a renewed sense of collaboration between multiple agencies all doing similar work in Bangor to help people who are homeless, Laurie said. But since the HUD team’s departure, it has been more difficult to coordinate different agencies. At the same time, more people who were homeless in Portland have come to Bangor in the wake of encampment clearings there, Laurie said.
Bangor officials asked U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office in early 2022 for federal assistance to solve the city’s homelessness crisis. Collins enlisted the help of HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge who sent homelessness experts to Bangor to develop a solution.
But it would take months for the federal team to finally step foot in Bangor. Patty Hamilton, Bangor’s public health director, offered to skip her planned summer vacation in 2022 if it meant getting the federal team to the city sooner, emails show. But federal officials did not act promptly.
“HUD is being particularly slow on this,” Jason Woolwine, who works for the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and was helping coordinate HUD’s trip to Bangor, wrote in a July 20, 2022, email. Two months later a group of top HUD officials toured the city’s two largest encampments, outside the Hope House and off Valley Avenue.
But it wasn’t until the end of December, six months after conversations about forming the team began, that work kicked off to clear out the Valley Avenue encampment.
The team was made up of representatives from Penobscot Community Health Center, Community Health and Counseling Services, Penquis, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, the city and HUD contractors.
The point of the work was to connect people living in the Valley Avenue encampment with housing, in addition to mental health resources and drug addiction treatment if they needed it, Laurie said. About a week into the work, one of the HUD technical assistance team members noted a problem that would continue to slow them down.
“Accessing available units for the team to move people into appears to be one of the main bottlenecks to moving people into housing,” said Sarah Hicks-West, a member of HUD’s team.
Bangor doesn’t track rental properties through any sort of consistent system, despite a city housing workgroup determining in 2019 that the city’s No. 1 priority to address housing issues should be a rental registry. A registry, the group’s report noted, would help the city better understand its housing stock.
Because there wasn’t a central list of landlords, the team dedicated multiple people to scroll through websites such as Zillow, Apartments.com and Trulia to find advertisements for rental units.
But the problem extended beyond not having a centralized list of landlords. Some landlords just don’t want to rent to people who were homeless, Laurie said.
“The rental market is tight, regardless of the renter,” She said. “Is that part of it? Yes. But is that the main issue? Probably not.”
Some landlords told the city they used to accept housing vouchers but stopped because of bad experiences, according to the records. In other cases, landlords wouldn’t rent to people specifically with Shelter Plus Care housing vouchers because they lacked an income, the records said.
From the start of the work, the city aimed to get people living in the encampment HUD-funded Shelter Plus Care vouchers — a program selected by the housing experts, Laurie said. The program focuses on providing not just rental subsidies but supportive services for people with disabilities.
In early April, however, before the encampment was cleared, the city — along with other administrators of the Shelter Plus Care program in Maine — ran out of vouchers, according to an email Laurie sent to members of the HUD team.
One result of the team’s work was the creation of the Landlord Liaison Program. It gives landlords money to reduce their financial risk of taking in people who were previously homeless who may have histories of evictions or criminal records. Landlords, who might fear damages or nonpayment, can use the funding to cover security deposits, application fees, the installation of security systems or building improvements to meet voucher program requirements.
“A lot of these individuals may have backgrounds that may give pause to somebody as to whether or not you want to take a risk,” Laurie said. “We were lucky that we found folks who were willing to give it a shot.”
Aside from securing housing, the work of connecting people living in the encampment with services was slow on its own, Laurie said. It took weeks for the outreach workers who visited the encampment daily to forge connections with its residents and convince them that promises of assistance weren’t empty, Laurie said.
“I think many individuals who have been unsheltered for a period of time, they struggle with trusting anybody,” she said. “They hear it all the time: ‘You’ve got to work with us, so we can help you get housing.’ But it takes a while.”
That’s where Laurie said she felt she learned the biggest lesson from the work: The systems in place to help people are still bureaucratic and aren’t designed to move quickly.
People who are homeless are more likely to experience health and mental health challenges, addiction and co-occurring disorders. It’s unrealistic to think people who are already struggling and don’t have housing can successfully navigate a bureaucratic system for help, Laurie said.
“The amount of hoops an individual has to pass through to be able to get to the point where they’re eligible [and] can apply for housing is pretty remarkable,” she said.
Laurie watched every week as members of the team headed out to the encampment, armed with bundles of paperwork for people in the encampment to fill out as part of the process of getting housed, she said.
They had to get people identification, help connect them with the Social Security Administration to get new cards issued, and verify people’s disabilities to make sure they qualified for housing vouchers, the records show.
For weeks, the team worked to find housing, communicate with people in the encampment, and help them break down barriers that were preventing them from getting a home. But the team faced another challenge: Some people who lived in the encampment didn’t want to leave, according to the records.
The work was meant to be quick, and the team had success housing one person early on in January, but then their efforts slowed. Week after week, they could get no one into a home, according to their meeting minutes.
By the end of March, only nine out of the roughly 20 people had been placed in some form of housing, whether it was permanent or temporary.
In late March, the team ramped up their efforts to more rapidly house people ahead of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, according to their March 22 meeting minutes.
The team began notifying people in the encampment that they were no longer allowed on the property after April 11. The city posted signs on the property and handed out written notices that people would face legal repercussions if they didn’t leave.
Between March 22 and April 11, the team focused on “intensive engagement” at the encampment, according to minutes from a March meeting about the closure.
Team members were constantly at the encampment as were law enforcement after members became concerned about the “number of firearms” residents had, according to meeting minutes. As the closure date neared, at least one person living in the encampment made threats of “putting up a fight” and using a firearm, the records said.
What exactly happened on April 11 remains unclear from the records. There were no written communications about who was responsible for various steps in the days and weeks before the closure. What’s more, the city didn’t allow reporters to watch the encampment’s closure.
‘We’re a small enough community’
For Laurie, the city’s work of clearing the Valley Avenue encampment was a success, she said. The HUD team helped multiple agencies work together toward a common goal, and the process boosted workers’ morale.
“We’re a small enough community that, all of the direct workers, they have a relationship with each other. So they do work collaboratively. And I think the difference was it provided the space to focus on one particular area,” she said.
While the city doesn’t know if the people who were housed have remained in housing, the city is currently working on a six-month review that will hopefully have that information, Laurie said.
The group continues to meet weekly — just without the HUD contractors — to discuss how things are going as the city looks to clear the encampment behind the Hope House, she said. While service providers continue to work with the city to house people, it has been more difficult without the HUD team in Bangor to facilitate, Laurie said.
“They do sort of have a sense that things have slipped back to everybody doing things their own way,” she said.
The problem also appears to be growing with more people showing up in Bangor for services, straining available resources, she said.
“We have confirmed across all areas that we do have a number of individuals in the community who cycle out of the Portland encampments. And of course, there are always individuals who lose housing,” she said.
Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. He may be reached at email@example.com.