When Bangor police Sgt. Wade Betters walked into one of the city’s homeless encampments on a recent morning, he didn’t hesitate to pepper its two occupants with questions.
First, he told the men that he hadn’t come to kick them off the land, a wooded area near the Kenduskeag Stream filled with tents, sleeping bags, cans of bug spray, empty bottles of water, stuffed animals and other items.
Then, he asked them where they were from and what efforts they were making to find housing.
The older man, 46-year-old Richard Coombs, told Betters that he has connected with a local outreach worker and qualified for federal housing assistance, but hasn’t been able to get off the waitlist for an apartment.
Coombs said he’s been struggling with homelessness for almost a decade. A Portland native, he said he moved from Arizona to Bangor last year after he was injured in a car crash and had to leave his job with a carnival.
“The hard part is getting a place,” Coombs said.
“You’ve got to follow through with it,” Betters told him.
Police sergeants aren’t often thought of as social workers, but when it comes to addressing the complicated challenge of homelesseness, few Bangor officials have been playing that role more than Betters.
In response to what the city says is a growing population living here without roofs over their heads, he makes regular trips to tent camps across the city to talk with their inhabitants, make sure they’re safe and pressure them to take advantage of resources that could eventually lead to housing.
He’s also there when the camps are cleared.
Soon, though, he’ll have some more help.
The city is close to hiring an outreach worker whose responsibility will be to connect so-called unsheltered homeless people such as Coombs with housing opportunities along with a range of supports such as health coverage through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and even things as simple as state identification.
That person will work to find the people who particularly struggle with mental illness, substance use and other challenges and may have been kicked out of the city’s existing homeless shelters, according to Rindy Fogler, the city’s manager of community services.
“It will be intensive outreach to the people who are the most difficult to shelter, the people who have multiple strikes against them when it comes to finding housing,” Fogler said. “It might be they have burned every bridge there is in Bangor and they need help repairing those.”
The new outreach worker will complement a team of three people in Penobscot County who do similar work for the Bangor agency Community Health and Counseling Services, according to Executive Director Dale Hamilton.
The city does not collect reliable data to show how the city’s unsheltered homeless population has changed over time, according to Fogler. But she and Betters both said the population appears to have grown recently and resulted in more complaints to the city.
The clearest indication of that growth came last winter, when almost 20 people slept in the lobby of the Bangor Police Department for nights on end, Betters said. In previous winters, he said, at most one or two people slept in the lobby on some nights.
The city has set aside $78,725 for the new outreach worker position in its new budget, with $25,000 of that amount coming from a grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation. That amount includes funding for a vehicle, computer and cellphone to be used by the worker.
The worker will also have access to a new $5,000 fund that’s available to insure landlords against the potential damages from housing previously homeless tenants, according to Fogler.
“The place where I really think we’re going to have to focus on is landlord involvement,” Fogler said. “We have to find housing. I get emails daily from people saying, ‘I’m desperately trying to find places in Bangor and I can’t.’ That’s going to be one of the huge hurdles.”
The outreach worker’s hiring comes as Bangor starts to implement the recommendations in a recent report that found a number of problems with the city’s housing supply, including rising rents and poor-quality units, particularly for low-income renters.
Betters and Fogler both said they understand the temptation for some charitable organizations and individuals to contribute tents to homeless people who don’t use shelters.
A recent example of that approach came in Waldo County — which doesn’t have a homeless shelter — where a woman has spearheaded an effort to donate tents and other equipment to housing insecure and homeless people. With few other options, the city of Belfast’s general assistance office has tried to connect some people in need of housing with camping gear.
In Bangor, the city is discouraging such donations. Betters and Fogler both said they can do more harm than good by enabling people to sleep outside in summer and not look for permanent housing ahead of winter.
“I’ve seen thousands and thousands of dollars of clothing and camping supplies rotting into the ground,” Betters said, referring to the equipment that’s left behind in homeless encampments. “I’d much rather see that money utilized to provide housing for people.”
One of the biggest challenges before next winter will be finding groups that are willing to create additional space in which homeless people can spend the coldest nights of the year so that hospitals and the police station don’t become de facto shelters, Betters said.
He said the new outreach worker will also be tasked with reaching out to groups that may have the resources to open such spaces.
Related: Carolyn Fish talks about being homeless in Bangor for years