At least two dozen people packed the Bangor City Council’s chambers on Monday to express their dismay at the decision to remove some people from Bangor’s largest homeless encampment last week.
Fewer than 10 people left the encampment, located behind the Hope House Health and Living Center, last week after outreach workers posted notices in the encampment stating people who participated in dangerous behavior and refused to engage in housing efforts would be evicted on Friday.
The backlash to the evictions is the latest chapter of Bangor’s years-long homelessness crisis. The city’s attempts to address the crisis has included bringing in a federal disaster relief team that specializes in housing people, which led to the closure of one of the city’s two major homeless encampments earlier this year.
Attempts to repeat the process at the encampment behind the Hope House, often called Camp Hope or Tent City, are proving more arduous.
Twenty people spoke during the public comment portion of the City Council meeting on Monday to condemn the city’s selective sweep of the encampment. Most speakers were wearing green, and many placed green tape X’s over their chests as a callback to the mark outreach workers placed on the shelters of those who were participating in efforts to get people housed.
Several speakers held up signs and banners in the council chambers during the remainder of the meeting, painted with messages like, “visible poverty is not a crime” and “stop the sweep.”
Jackson Peck, a former Bangor resident and current employee in the Bangor and Brewer region, told councilors he’s worried about how displacing homeless residents strip people of their sense of safety and security.
“To those suffering from active addiction, chronic homelessness and mental health diagnoses, this is cruel and inhumane treatment that strips people of their autonomy, personal property and civil rights and dignity,” Peck said.
Peck and Gabrielle Wiley, a Bangor resident and social work student at the University of Maine who also works at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, spoke of how forcing people out of where they feel safest could worsen their substance use disorder or other mental health diagnoses while potentially making it harder for them to access resources and services.
“They’re residents of our city and they deserve our help, protection and access to resources if and when they choose,” Wiley said. “They’re not second-class citizens and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which isn’t what happened.”
Outreach workers estimated between four and six people left the encampment prior to the Friday deadline, according to Debbie Laurie, Bangor city manager.
On Friday, Bangor police issued three criminal trespass orders to people who hadn’t left the encampment yet and posted one order on a campsite, Laurie said. Those warnings told the recipients they must leave within 48 hours.
Laurie emphasized that criminal trespass orders are not a misdemeanor and do not go on a person’s criminal record.
“The whole point is to not create yet another barrier for a person who’s unhoused,” Laurie said.
By Monday, all the people who were issued criminal trespass orders had left.
The city estimates between 50 and 60 people were living in the encampment prior to the evictions last week.
Laurie knows outreach workers helped two people who were living in the encampment enter the Shaw House, a youth shelter in Bangor. The city is unsure, however, where the other people who left the encampment last week went.
Councilor Joseph Leonard asked Laurie how the city can ensure those who were forced out of the encampment who were participating in dangerous behavior don’t enter downtown Bangor and continue that behavior, putting more Bangor residents at risk.
“We cannot ignore the fact that pushing people out of Tent City only pushes them closer to our urban environments like our downtown where the homelessness issue is acutely felt,” Leonard said. “The question we must ask ourselves is, ‘When we tell citizens they’re not allowed to exist in the one place they feel safe and secure, where are they supposed to go?’”
If someone commits the same actions or behavior in another area of Bangor, Laurie said she trusts someone would be willing to talk to police and give a statement, which doesn’t often happen in an encampment.
This is because people are worried about retaliation if they speak to law enforcement, don’t trust police, or are worried speaking to police will lead to their arrest because they have an outstanding warrant, she said.