Dana Charette became homeless last year after a new landlord raised the rent for the Gardiner apartment he’d lived in for six years.
Charette came to Bangor in September for better access to social services, he said Friday. In part, that’s meant the 54-year-old has spent much of his time at the Union Street Brick Church, located at the corner of Union and First streets. An Air Force veteran, Charette has visited the warming center at the former Unitarian church nearly every day since it opened about two months ago.
“It’s been a godsend,” Charette said. “I get one nice hot meal a day here. This also is a good place to come to get out of the cold and have a cup of coffee.”
The church has become the home to more services in recent years. Manna Ministries has operated a soup kitchen and food pantry in the privately owned church since May 2017 but was not able to offer other services.
The latest addition to the available services is a warming center and a program that offers free clothing, toiletries, tents, blankets and snacks to people who are homeless or otherwise in need. Those new services came with the Biker Church USA’s recent move to the building. The organization is now leasing the building from the church’s longtime owner, the Rev. Lee Witting, with an option to buy it. Manna continues to pay rent.
“All the clothes I have on I got here,” Charette said as he sat on the stage in the church. “My shoes and my socks, too.”
The Biker Church USA has been meeting at Nealley’s Corner Church on Kennebec Road in Hampden for several years. It’s part of a network of independent evangelical churches across the country loosely associated with the Biker Bible Institute in North Carolina, that aims to “get 10,000 bikers into the Bible every week,” according to the institute website. About two years ago, the church’s members in Hampden decided to do some outreach in Bangor.
“We started handing out goody bags to the homeless,” Chris Marley, pastor and administrator, said Thursday. “That led to our clothing ministry, the Storehouse. We came here once a week on Wednesdays to distribute clothes.”
That led to a discussion with Manna Ministries’ Bill Rae about how the two could cooperate, with Manna continuing to run the soup kitchen and food pantry and the Biker Church offering clothing, Bible study and other services.
Witting said earlier this month that he had used income from his job as a part-time chaplain at what is now Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center to pay the church’s expenses. He lost that job in October 2017 when the hospital eliminated its paid chaplaincy program. The hospital reversed that decision the following month, but didn’t rehire Witting.
The Biker Church has “assumed a lot of the costs of heating and maintaining the building, and I am very thankful for that,” Witting said. “I can’t imagine better folks to eventually take over the building, but we’re sharing the building for now.”
Witting’s Brick Church congregation continues to gather for worship on Sundays, and open mic nights, held for the past 20 years, are still held on Thursdays.
Rae called the collaboration between Manna and the Biker Church, which both operate solely on donations, “a perfect marriage.”
“The number of people here during the day has increased tremendously from one or two to 10 to 15,” he said.
On Friday morning, about a dozen members of Bangor’s homeless community were in the church. Some drank coffee, ate snacks and warmed up while others searched through the clothes, displayed on racks and in bins as if in a department store.
Laura Cole, the Storehouse manager, said that, in addition to helping to change the negative stereotypes some people have about bikers, she hopes the church can help change the perception of Bangor’s homeless residents.
“These aren’t bad people,” she said. “These are people that are down on their luck.”
Marley, Cole and Rae volunteer full time at the church.
Charette, who recently obtained health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs with the help of people at the church, said that he feels safer in the church than he does on the streets.
“When you’re on the streets, you’re vulnerable,” he said.