BANGOR, Maine — Wednesday night’s public meeting by Penobscot Community Health Care officials to talk about a proposed expansion of Hope House attracted 30 people, as well as many comments, questions, complaints and answers.
One thing the 100-minute meeting was short on, however, was solutions.
“The issue tonight isn’t about if Hope House serves a needed function or provides employment for a lot of people. I think that’s great,” said Dunning Boulevard resident Ginger Ward Green. “The issue is seeing problems we are already experiencing expand.
“I believe in transitional housing, but where it’s currently located just does not make sense for us.”
Green and about 20 other residents from neighborhoods near the Hope House — a “wet” facility at 170 Indiana Ave. that provides emergency food and shelter to alcoholics and drug addicts, as well as on-site medical care, mental health services, housing support and social service case management — attended the meeting to voice their concerns about the facility’s plan to expand its transitional housing operations.
“The premise is if you provide people who are homeless or severely disabled housing rapidly, because that’s their more acute need, then they’re more likely to do the other things they need to improve their lives like job training, education, substance abuse and mental health services,” said Dr. Trip Gardner, PCHC’s chief psychiatric officer. “And based on this evidence, we’re hoping people stay homeless for a lesser amount of time.”
PCHC has asked both the Bangor Planning Board and Bangor City Council to change zoning rules in the area to allow for more rooming houses, boarding homes or congregate housing facilities owned and operated by public or nonprofit organizations.
The planning board voted 4-3 against PCHC’s amendment request. The Bangor council voted to postpone voting on PCHC’s request on July 9.
“We heard you loud and clear at the planning board meeting,” said Ken Schmidt, PCHC chief executive officer. “We’re here to listen and try to learn more about your concerns, as well as answer any questions we can.”
Ward Green opened the public comment portion of the meeting by talking about problems created by Hope House residents and clients while narrating a slide show presentation which showed numerous photos taken of a wooded lot near Hope House which has become inhabited by many of its residents.
“We came home from a trip over Fourth of July to find sleeping bags on our garage floor,” said Gayle Kinney, another Dunning Boulevard resident.
The photos showed trash including everything from empty liquor bottles to toilet paper to cigarette packs, empty food containers and even underwear. Other photos showed crude, makeshift shelters and discarded tents. A few showed several marijuana plants someone had planted with potting soil from an empty bag laying nearby.
“We are a magnet for the wrong kind of people, and expanding Hope House is the wrong way to go,” said David Green.
The owner of the wooded lot said her “No Trespassing” signs are posted high up on posts and trees — at the suggestion of Bangor police officers — and routinely taken down. Neighbors said makeshift campfires are started in the woods once the weather turns cold.
Dunning Boulevard resident Alfred Mosca told officials how his 10-year-old granddaughter wasn’t allowed to be in his backyard without another adult present, and that his wife was afraid to go out there alone.
“We’re sure you’re well aware of the problems we’re having with transients here,” Mosca said. “You have intoxicated people and people with problems from all over who are drawn here.”
Gardner noted that only 10 percent of Hope House users are from out of state, with the majority of them being from Penobscot County.
“You shouldn’t have to live like that,” said Gardner. “But if you eliminate transitional housing, you’re still going to have homeless people.”
Hope House currently has transitional housing room for up to 24 people. PCHC secured grants from Maine State Housing and some foundations to construct an 8,000-square-foot building that would add 24 more small bedrooms as well as improve its current clinic.
Three Bangor City Councilors — Pat Blanchette, Nelson Durgin and Charlie Longo — attended the meeting along with city manager Cathy Conlow, Bangor Homeless Shelter Director Dennis Marble and Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s health and community services director.
Blanchette asked Schmidt a direct question toward the end of the meeting after noting that she thought he failed to answer it fully when a nearby resident asked it.
“If council votes against this, do you have a backup plan?” she asked.
Schmidt said he did not.
“At this time, we don’t because we hope this goes through,” he said.
Schmidt said PCHC’s board will likely call a special meeting for next week, and another meeting has been scheduled for Monday, Sept. 10.
“We will discuss this further to see what our best route is,” Schmidt said. “We’re totally committed, as our neighbors are, to helping homeless people.”