BANGOR, Maine — Just before Christmas, city workers drove a truck down to the waterfront and removed a homeless encampment located between Hollywood Casino, Hotel and Raceway and the Interstate 395 overpass, upsetting some local residents who advocate for the homeless.
“What gives anybody the right to throw somebody’s stuff away?” Shannon Denbow of Bangor, who once worked at the Greater Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, asked Wednesday. “It was a crappy thing to do.”
Denbow and her husband, Bernie Kellish, went to a Bangor City Council infrastructure committee meeting on Tuesday night to voice their concerns and got a sit-down meeting with City Manager Cathy Conlow, which Denbow broadcasted live on Facebook.
Kellish said he was most upset because he heard “they weren’t given any notice whatsoever.”
Conlow told the couple that their information was not 100 percent accurate. She said those who were staying in the encampment were given plenty of notice that it would be removed, but then added that sometimes people living on the street have mental illness or substance abuse problems and are sometimes “not aware of the moment.”
“In the past, where we’ve had these homeless encampments … we’ve had problems,” Conlow told the couple.
Sgt. Tim Cotton, spokesman for the Bangor Police Department, said police and Department of Health and Human Services representatives were called to the homeless encampment near Dutton Street several times during the summer and fall.
“Our police officers were called to the area on more than one occasion for complaints of disorderly behavior and reports of fighting between some that had encamped there,” Cotton said. “During the month of June, DHHS officials and Bangor detectives were involved in an investigation that resulted in two women being charged with endangering the welfare of a child. Our involvement then focused on finding appropriate options for those at the site before the advance of winter.”
In addition, in August 2009, a 19-year-old Old Town woman who was homeless was stabbed to death in a shack used by the homeless as a hangout, once located near the end of Dutton Street, where the encampment was recently removed.
Bangor police also arrested a homeless man in April 2008 for beating another man in “The Pines,” a wooded area where homeless people are known to hang out and camp between Interstate 95 and Corporate Drive.
The city manager said a liability issue could arise “if we leave them there for too long and something happens. It’s a constant dilemma for us.”
Cotton said the department took proactive steps to help the homeless residents get off the streets weeks in advance of the camp’s removal.
“We were aware of a large homeless campsite along the waterfront through the summer and into November,” Cotton said in a Wednesday email. “As the weather became colder, and through discussions with the folks at our shelter, who we work with regularly, we planned an outreach to get the people out of there before the cold weather came to Maine.”
Law enforcement worked with the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter’s outreach program to let the residents know “several weeks in advance” that the camp would be removed and they had to relocate.
“Most of the folks living at the campsite were aided by the outreach program and found other options,” Cotton said. “Those who refused to leave were asked to leave by the police.”
Public Works Director Dana Wardwell said his crew was given the job to remove the encampment by the police department. He said they usually clean up campsites set up by homeless people near the end of Dutton Street and in “The Pines” on a yearly basis.
Wardwell said it’s not a job he looks forward to.
This year, “items such as tarps, boxes, old furniture, discarded food containers and related items that were left behind and abandoned were removed from the site after the individuals had moved on,” Cotton said of the Dutton Street encampment.
“I don’t think it was right, what they did,” said Bangor resident Tony Bulley, who alerted Denbow and Kellish to the situation.
For Denbow, who said she has “been there,” more could be done on the part of the city. She said she was happy that Police Chief Mark Hathaway called Wednesday to schedule a meeting to discuss the issue with her and her husband.
“When you’re living out on the street, what you have is all you have,” she said. “People on the streets need resources to lift them up, not to be kicked while they’re down.”
“For me, it just breaks my heart,” Denbow said.