You’ll have a hard time finding Torelin Jager at her new office in Bangor’s department of public health and community services.
As the city’s recently hired homeless outreach caseworker, Jager regularly travels to the many camps that have sprung up in the woods around Bangor where those without permanent housing sleep.
Among the tents and sleeping bags, she offers help with finding permanent housing and accessing social services. She also checks to make sure the camps are sanitary and safe.
On a recent afternoon, she had mixed success reaching out to women at two camps near the airport. One of them took a rain check on Jager’s offer.
Another, Michele, was eager for the assistance. While Michele’s pitbull mix sniffed for woodchucks among the pine needles, she answered a series of Jager’s questions and gladly accepted her business cards to hand out to other people in the camp.
A third woman, Valerie, had already connected with Jager after spending much of last winter outside, either sleeping in alleyways or walking from place to place. Now, she’s spending nights in the Hope House homeless shelter.
“I don’t want to be around groups anymore,” Valerie said. “Hopefully she can help.”
Jager, who started her job in early August, isn’t the first homeless outreach caseworker in the Queen City. Community Health and Counseling Services, a Bangor-based agency, already has three staff who do similar work around Penobscot County.
But the city only recently created Jager’s position as part of a larger response to what it says is a growing population of homeless people who are sleeping outside — rather than in a homeless shelter — and an uptick in complaints about them.
There’s no clear data showing how the city’s population of so-called unsheltered homeless people has changed. Last year, just seven people in Bangor had reportedly stayed in homeless shelters for a period of more than six months, according to the latest data from the Maine State Housing Authority.
But the Bangor Police Department did see a sharp jump in the number of homeless people who spent their nights in its lobby last winter. While just one or two people periodically spent the night there in previous years, almost 20 people did so regularly last winter, according to Sgt. Wade Betters.
Now, a large part of Jager’s job is finding people like Valerie, trying to connect them with housing and determining what other services they need to stay healthy — ideally before the temperature dips below freezing.
Many people who have been homeless for months on end also struggle with other challenges such as joblessness, mental illness and substance abuse that can make holding onto housing uniquely hard, according to Jager, who is 32 and has bright pink hair that’s visible at a far distance.. Once she has helped place people in apartments, she plans to keep in touch with them to offer followup assistance.
“You don’t just house someone and walk away,” she said.
Another of Jager’s tasks that’s just as demanding is urging landlords to open up housing for that population. She said that it’s been hard to find landlords who are willing to rent to tenants who receive local or federal housing assistance.
The landlords may not agree to the inspections that are required for some voucher programs or want to deal with the paperwork required to accept a rent check from a third party, according Rindy Fogler, the city’s director of community services.
They may also think that housing people who have struggled with homelessnes and other challenges is risky, and the city is trying to provide additional support to make them more comfortable doing so.
“One of the biggest barriers is finding landlords who are able to accept vouchers,” Jager said.
Born in Pennsylvania, Jager grew up in Presque Isle and has spent about six years doing case management work around the Bangor area. While people in the camps may not initially warm to her, she plans to respect their wishes and make repeat visits to get them more comfortable seeing her.
As the larger Bangor community considers how to address its housing problems, she also wants people who may not have much sympathy for homeless people to look at their savings accounts and consider how they would be affected by an unexpected medical bill or car repair.
The chances of becoming homeless, she said, “are a lot higher than some people think.”
Related: Carolyn Fish talks about being homeless in Bangor for years