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.
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.