Editor’s Note: The BDN has agreed to use only first names when requested by the homeless who were interviewed for this story.
The signs of homelessness growing in Bangor are everywhere. They are just far enough off the beaten path to go unnoticed by many. People take shelter in makeshift camps under the Veterans’ Memorial Bridge. In the wooded area off Hammond Street known as The Pines. Inside jails and emergency rooms and the police station lobby.
The trend is heart-wrenching and perpetual — and just might indicate the arrival of a perfect storm, according to experts. Bangor’s shelters are full. State and federal housing subsidies have either dried up or created unfathomable waiting lists. General assistance, which is supposed to be emergency and temporary funding, is stretched paper-thin. Additional social service cuts from the state seem imminent.
Local officials from a broad spectrum of agencies that have a stake in homelessness met recently with Bangor city councilors to talk about current issues. They all agreed that the problem is likely as bad as they have ever seen it, but the bigger revelation was that no one at the table had any solutions.
“We have significant resources directed at this, but it’s inadequate in a lot of ways,” city health and community services director Shawn Yardley told councilors. “The city has a major role in addressing this problem, but we fall short.”
Councilors listened intently to the solemn update but had little to offer for suggestions except to say that homelessness affects the entire city, not just those worried about finding four walls and a roof.
“It’s tough to bring a problem but not any solutions,” Yardley said later. “This is what we’re up against.”
Dedicated people like Dennis Marble, who runs the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, and Brent Scobie, who oversees the Acadia Recovery Community, agreed that the problem is pervasive and the solution elusive.
“Demand is up and resources are down,” said Marble, who has about 33 beds available each night, always full. “The shift in responsibility is falling down from federal and state agencies. It’s a slow-motion spinning cyclone.”
Scobie said Acadia recently canceled one of its programs to allow the facility to increase capacity from 44 to 64 beds. Within the first few nights, the beds were full by 8 p.m.
“Homeless shelters and service agencies all do great work, important work, but in the end it’s just a Band-Aid,” Scobie said.
Councilor Geoff Gratwick said the city has a commitment, if only from a humanitarian standpoint, to do more, and yet there is no funding or support mechanism to do more.
Many have ended up overflowing shelters, spilling out into the street, under bridges or in the woods.
“You want to know what it’s like to be homeless?” said Jane, a middle-aged woman hanging out Thursday afternoon at The Pines, an area popular with the homeless. “It really sucks.”
“I’m ashamed,” said Ray, who was drinking orange juice and vodka Thursday with Jane and Norman, another homeless person. “This place isn’t so bad in the summertime, but now, I’m just trying to stay warm.”
A closer look
If you ask Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia and others, the city has become a haven for the homeless in recent years. The end of the line.
“People are told to come here,” the chief told councilors last week. “In some cases, they are given a bus ticket.”
Like all service centers, Bangor does attract many from rural parts of the state and sometimes from out of state. There are few homeless shelters, substance abuse programs or other service agencies in the outskirts of Maine.
According to a survey conducted by the Maine Housing Authority in January 2009, there were 871 people identified as homeless in Maine. The largest concentrations were in Cumberland County (203) and Penobscot County (101).
Bangor is unique in the sense that it draws homeless from a wider geographic area, but communities such as Portland and Lewiston have growing homeless populations, according to Yardley. Portland has had some success by building more transitional housing and has more options for homeless shelters, but it also has nearly three times as many people in the metropolitan area.
Despite rumors to the contrary, homeless shelters in Bangor are not plentiful.
The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter has 33 beds and plans to add another handful of cots soon. The Acadia Recovery Community now has 64 beds at its emergency shelter and about 20 more for transitional housing. Manna Ministries has a small number of emergency beds. The Shaw House has beds for homeless youth.
Other specialized shelters exist for domestic violence victims or sexual assault victims, but in general, those aren’t open to any and all.
Yardley said so far this year, the city not only is seeing more homeless, they also are staying at shelters longer.
Jack Williams has been staying at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter for several weeks. His mother, who lives in Houlton, is dying, and he has no other family. He was going to college recently but that didn’t work out. Since he already has stayed at the shelter for several nights, Jack is supposed to be out by Nov. 30 to make room for someone else. He doesn’t know where he’ll go.
“In a way, I’m grateful for a bed, for shelter,” the 20-year-old said Thursday night inside the Main Street shelter. “But in another sense, it’s a constant fight to see who can get a bed or who can get a [housing] voucher. That’s no way to live.”
Dennis Brandon followed a girlfriend to Maine from Philadelphia. The couple had a falling-out and she made him leave. He ended up at the homeless shelter on Oct. 30. He has never been homeless before.
On Thursday, he waited outside the shelter’s back entrance, smoking a cigarette and contemplating his next move.
“They kicked me out,” he said. “They said I was drinking.”
Dennis said he wasn’t drinking, but others at the shelter said he probably was. So Dennis took a taxi to Acadia Recovery Community, which allows people to stay even if they are intoxicated.
City leaders are less concerned about the homeless people who end up in the shelters, drinking or not. At least they get a bed and blankets. Others don’t.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, you get to 8 or 9 o’clock at night and all the shelter beds are full,” Scobie said. “But I think if the city built a 100-bed shelter tomorrow, that would fill up too.”
Now that nights are colder, some of Bangor’s homeless have found temporary warmth inside the lobby of the Bangor police station. Not every night, but just enough to create problems. Chief Gastia said the choice between letting someone stay and kicking them out onto the streets is not an easy one.
“When no other alternatives exist, they come to us,” he told councilors last week. “We’re trying, but it’s only going to get worse. I’m not sure how we’re going to continue to deal with this problem.”
Still more homeless people have been sleeping in cramped entryways of downtown businesses. Owners often have to move them along in the morning, Gastia said.
No push for policy changes
Homelessness is not new to the Bangor area, but the dynamics have changed in recent years.
The Rev. Bob Carlson, who manages Penobscot Community Health Care and sees many aspects of homelessness, remembers dealing with this issue decades ago when he helped get the Hope House (now ARC) up and running. Then, he said, the biggest problem was alcoholism. Now, it’s rare when a homeless person has only one diagnosis. Oftentimes it’s alcoholism, coupled with depression, coupled with more serious mental health diagnoses.
Like others, Carlson said he had no solution, but he said the problem is real and ongoing.
Marble, who also has spent several years advocating for homeless services, said that while matters are critical, current policies are stagnant.
“I don’t want to add my own fatigue to it, but it is bleak,” he said. “Everything that’s being done is reactive.”
The number of truly homeless people is relatively easy to track, but it’s the “invisible homeless” that worry Scobie.
“There are people that are literally a paycheck or a couch away from being homeless,” he said. “In a bad economy, how big is that group?”
Social service agencies and representatives in the faith community have been talking for months about setting up warming centers now that winter is imminent. That’s fine in the daytime, but those facilities don’t stay open all night.
Chief Gastia also lamented the city’s large sex offender population and expressed concern about the growing number of them who list addresses as 263 Main St. — the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter — or 179 Indiana Ave. — the Acadia Recovery Community.
But homeless is homeless, said Marble. A convicted sex offender is no different from any other person teetering on the edge of homelessness. In many cases, they have it harder because no one wants to house them.
Recent studies have shown that providing permanent housing is far less costly in the long run than allowing people to stay chronically homeless. But no funding exists to get any housing projects on line.
Yardley agreed with the Band-Aid analogy but expanded on it.
“The problem is: If it’s too good a Band-Aid, you don’t find a permanent solution,” he said.
Changes need to come through state or federal policy shifts, Yardley said. One of the things that have been suggested is to bring the state’s congressional delegation to the table to tackle homelessness. “What are they doing about this?” Yardley asked. With health care, budgets and other pressing matters dominating the legislative agenda, many things get overlooked.
Scobie said it’s hard for the public to understand the plight of the homeless, because they see only the negatives.
“It’s easy to recognize and dwell on problematic cases, on alcoholism and mental health diagnoses,” he said. “But we do have success stories … And they are remarkable.”
If you ask those worried about freezing to death this winter, hope is scarce. Alcohol and camaraderie often are the only sources of solace.
Marsha, who has been in and out of homeless shelters for decades, said the Bangor shelter isn’t so bad. If she ended up on the street, she said she would survive.
“I’ve done it before,” she said.
Ray, a sort of homeless ringleader who jokes often with his fellow homeless and takes liberal swills from a jug of vodka and orange juice, turns serious when the mirror reflects back to him. What’s the worst part of being homeless?
“I miss my kids,” he said, kicking the bottle at his feet. Sometimes, he goes to the public library and looks them up on Facebook, just to see pictures. “I miss my house. I don’t want to be like this.”