Bangor voters elected two new city councilors, Carolyn Fish and Susan Deane, who proposed ideas during their campaign that are unlike anything the city is doing to tackle its most pressing and visible issues.
The eight people who ran for three seats on the council agreed that homelessness, affordable housing and substance use are three issues that the city must address, but the candidates’ ideas for how to improve those issues differ.
Some candidates campaigned with ideas like bringing more permanent supportive housing to Bangor, as it would give people who are homeless a safe place to live and easy access to resources for substance use and mental health treatment. Others advocated for adding more detox beds in the city and offering evidence-based harm reduction methods to those struggling with substance use.
Support for the newcomers’ ideas may show Bangor residents are dissatisfied with the lack of improvement on the city’s homelessness crisis and want city leaders to take a different approach. But one councilor fears that the diversity of opinions could create a standstill within the city council.
Prior to the election, Fish told the Bangor Daily News she’s interested in creating a local task force to identify where people who are homeless in Bangor are coming from so they can be reunited with their communities.
To address substance use, Fish saw merit in reigniting the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program in schools that could help staunch substance use in younger generations. But, Fish said she’s not in favor of bringing more methadone clinics to Bangor because “the people that fall out of those programs end up on our streets and that attracts drug dealers.”
During her campaign, Deane said Bangor has reached its limit on how many people it can provide services to. City leaders must now stop the influx of unsheltered people coming to Bangor for help while addressing those who are already here.
This work, she said, should be coupled with encouraging the development of more housing in Bangor, bolstering economic development and keeping neighborhoods and parks safe.
Fish garnered the most votes on Tuesday, winning 3,151, while Deane won 2,634 and incumbent Joseph Leonard claimed 2,448, according to City Clerk Lisa Goodwin. They will be sworn in on Monday morning and serve a three-year term.
While voters chose Fish and Deane to join the council, Leonard’s reelection can also be interpreted as some residents’ endorsement of what he has done during his year on council, said Mark Brewer, professor and interim chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine.
The combination of Leonard, Fish and Deane shows that the topic of homelessness is “dominating” people’s minds and they want something done, but what action they want city leaders to take is “clear as mud,” Brewer said.
“The elected councilors tell us that Bangor residents want the homeless issue addressed and that’s what they’re going to be looking for from the new version of the council,” Brewer said.
Linzy Norris of Bangor said he voted for Fish and Deane because he liked the “more conservative” ideas they told the Bangor Daily News prior to the election for how they’d approach homelessness.
“I’ve lived and worked in Bangor for many years and I love the city, but right now, it’s not what it used to be,” Norris said. “There were no ‘Tent Cities’ three or four years ago, so I have to put the blame on the current council. They’re doing nothing to identify the homeless who are coming into town.”
For example, Norris said he liked Fish’s idea of creating a task force to identify where people who are homeless in Bangor are from so they can be reunited with their communities.
Norris said he believes Bangor should continue to support and help unsheltered people who are from Bangor, but deny resources to anyone who is homeless and comes to Maine seeking assistance.
Norris also said he doesn’t support distributing harm reduction materials, like sterile needles and Narcan, to people in active substance use, because he feels it encourages people to continue using drugs.
While Norris didn’t know exactly what movement he wants to see from the new councilors, he hopes whatever action they take is a different approach from what he’s seen the council do in recent years.
“I hope they’re able to bring some fresh ideas to the city council that lead them in a new direction, because right now, it’s going in a bad direction,” Norris said.
Amy Clark of Bangor, however, said she didn’t vote for Fish or Deane because she didn’t like the campaign materials that touted the two candidates and Phillip Henry, who wasn’t elected. A local political action committee, “Citizens for a Safer Bangor,” published those materials that painted Bangor as an unsafe city.
“I found the overall feeling of the election to be disappointing and sad,” Clark said. “I didn’t like a lot of fearmongering and stigma around people who are suffering that convince people they are in danger every time they leave their home in Bangor.”
Citizens for a Safer Bangor claimed Fish, Deane and Henry would “help the homeless safely relocate” and “restore public safety to Bangor,” while current city policies cause “more homeless, more crime and more taxes and regulations,” according to a Facebook post.
“I’ve spent close to seven years volunteering to support people who use drugs and people in recovery and I know people who are suffering are not inherently dangerous,” Clark said.
Regardless of who’s on the council, Leonard said he will continue to push for a housing-first model to decrease homelessness, which prioritizes getting people into affordable permanent housing so they can focus on getting substance use or mental health treatment without worrying about where they’ll sleep or how they’ll stay warm.
“If the citizens of Bangor really want to solve homelessness, we need to stop sweeping the issue under the rug because people don’t like seeing them on the streets,” Leonard said. “We have peer reviewed studies that show housing-first initiatives are proven to work.”
But Leonard is unsure what, if any, progress can be made on this if the council’s newest members aren’t in favor of such initiatives.
“I fear we’ll have a lame duck year where nothing on council gets done,” Leonard said. “I don’t think most workers at city hall are going to appreciate half-baked ideas like restarting the DARE program.”