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On a cold Friday afternoon, Thomas Brouillette leaned against the brick wall of the pumping station next to Damon’s Beverage and Redemption on Washington Street as a red shopping cart full of his belongings shielded him from the first snow of the year.
About 1 p.m., Bangor police Sgt. Wade Betters and the city’s outreach worker, Torelin Jager, pulled up in an unmarked police cruiser to talk to Brouillette and the two men with him.
Brouillette, 63, has been living on the streets of Bangor for months, but he recently got a hotel room for a week when his Social Security money came in. When he ran out of money last week, he was back on the streets, but the temperatures had dropped drastically.
“Those of you who can’t get into housing, you’ll really need to start thinking about a warm-weather state,” Betters told the three men. “We can’t allow you to be on the streets of Bangor in the winter and freeze.”
Brouillette told him he wanted to go to New Haven, Connecticut, where he said the mother of his children had lined up an apartment for him.
“It’s not really a warm-weather state, but I got a place,” he told Betters. “I want to just get out today so that I’ll get there by tonight.”
Betters aimed to coordinate a bus trip for him there.
Every year as the weather starts to turn colder, police and public health officials from the city renew their efforts to get the city’s homeless population off the streets.
In the past 18 months, there has been an increase in homelessness in the Bangor area, according to Bangor Area Homeless Shelter Director Boyd Kronholm. Since September, the city has taken a new approach for some people who have been unable to find shelter. It has bought bus tickets to warmer weather states to help people who are homeless move out of Bangor.
In less than two months, the city has bought nine bus tickets for people who ended up homeless in Bangor, spending about $1,400, according to Rindy Fogler, community services program manager from the city’s public health office. The people the city has helped relocate have traveled as far as Long Beach, California.
In most cases, these people are not Maine natives, Fogler said. They came to Bangor for different reasons — from jobs to significant others — and when their arrangements fell through, they had no other option but to live on the streets.
“They found themselves in a strange place where they knew absolutely no one, they had no housing, they couldn’t get into the shelter,” Fogler said. “When the question was asked, ‘Do you want to stay in Bangor?’ The answer was ‘No, I want to go home.’”
The shelter also has helped people from out of state go back home if they can verify that they have someone to stay with where they’re going.
“We don’t just want to send somebody that’s homeless here to homelessness somewhere else,” Kronholm said.
This year, the shelter bought three bus tickets for people from outside Maine to leave Bangor with money it raised from community donations.
Last month, the city bought a bus ticket to Tampa, Florida, for a man whom Bangor police arrested for evading justice. That man was supposed to be extradited to California, and when the state failed to pick him up before the extradition deadline, he was released from the Penobscot County Jail. He came to the police for help with housing, and took their offer to relocate to Florida.
Often, people who are homeless ask Bangor police for help. Several times a week, Betters will drive around with Jager trying to find people who have pitched tents in the woods, or on the rail tracks to try and convince them to find a place to stay. Sometimes that can mean the homeless shelters in the city, other times a family member who is willing to take them in.
Last week, a veteran living on the streets of Bangor came to the police station looking for help to get down to Portland. Jager got in touch with Preble Street shelter, which had a bed available for the man but could only hold it for a couple hours.
“He didn’t have any money or any means to get to Portland. We were going to put him on a bus but he would get there too late,” Betters said. “The only way we could make it happen was driving him down ourselves.”
When Betters got back to Bangor, he found a couple in the police station lobby from Lowell, Massachusetts, who had taken a bus up thinking they could find a place to stay in a homeless shelter. After confirming that the shelters were full, the couple had to stay overnight in the Bangor Police Department lobby.
The next morning, the city paid for their bus tickets back to Boston.
Even though Brouillette didn’t need the city to buy him a ticket, he needed help getting from downtown to the Concord Coach Lines bus station on Union Street. Brouillette chose to leave Bangor because he couldn’t find an apartment, and didn’t want to go to the shelter.
Betters decided to give him a ride to save him taxi fare. As Brouillette wheeled his shopping cart toward the police cruiser, he left behind a cardboard box full of bottles of alcohol.
“You can’t take that on the bus,” Betters cautioned him as Brouillette took out one last bottle from his jacket pocket. He added it to the assortment of booze he left behind for the other two men, and started loading his black trash bags full of clothes and personal items into the back of the cruiser.
He could only fit two, so he held the third bag on his lap while he made small talk with Betters and Jager on the way to the Union Street bus stop.
“I know you might have taken a little bottle to help you through,” Betters said to Brouillette as he drove. “If you smell like booze too much, they’re not going to let you on.”
“If he’s been drinking, we can’t take him,” ticket agent Bob Bjorklund said to Betters. “We’re going to have a bus full of people and we can’t have any issues.”
But upon Betters’ request, Bjorklund decided to come out of the bus station and talk to Brouillette, who assured him he would not be drinking on the bus. Bjorklund decided to let him on, and Brouillette bought a ticket on the last bus of the day to South Station in Boston.
Betters handed him a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card to go get coffee, and as Brouillette walked to the coffee shop, Betters drove alongside him on Union Street, turned his loudspeaker on and said, “Don’t miss the bus!”
Brouillette laughed and waved at the police cruiser as Betters drove away.
Related: Carolyn Fish talks about being homeless in Bangor for years