A Bangor hotel that has used all 60 of its beds to house homeless residents since last fall is expected to stop serving as a shelter at the end of September. But the shelter director said that use of the hotel over the past year could be a model for Bangor’s future efforts to fight homelessness.
The Ramada Inn on Odlin Road has served exclusively as a homeless shelter since September 2020, when Penobscot Community Health Care began running it as an extension of its Hope House shelter under a contract with the Maine State Housing Authority. The initial goal for the shelter was to keep residents socially distant amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the city’s existing shelters could accommodate fewer guests because of distancing requirements.
Each person received his or her own room in the hotel, allowing them to sleep and relax in a way that is often impossible in a congregate living situation, said Hope House Director Josh D’Alessio.
He has noticed lower levels of anxiety and depression in people staying at the Ramada shelter. And Hope House staff have been able to connect with people there whom they’ve been trying to engage with for years.
“Congregate living is as passe as hammer pants,” D’Alessio said. “The approach is way wrong.”
Housing the homeless in hotels as a strategy accelerated nationally as a temporary response to the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet homeless advocates and officials have pushed for a permanent transition as they found that using hotels was an effective alternative to traditional shelters. California and Oregon are now purchasing hotels for such use.
Leaders have long struggled to deal with the shelterless population in Bangor, a service center that draws people from across Maine and beyond. Last fall, the city counted 140 unsheltered people in the city, up from 25 to 30 the previous year.
While some may view using hotels as more expensive than traditional shelters, D’Alessio said he firmly believes the costs would be lower. People staying in a hotel setting are less likely to experience mental health crises, leading to fewer unnecessary arrests. For D’Alessio, the setting simply makes it easier for someone to get back on their feet.
“The feeling of worthiness and having a purpose — all that comes from having a door you walk in by yourself,” he said.
In April, a man staying at the Ramada was charged with arson and burglary after he allegedly started a fire at nearby Fielder’s Choice Ice Cream. Such disturbances, however, have been the exception rather than the norm at the Ramada.
“The Ramada sometimes gets a reputation on social media that is the complete opposite of what it is,” D’Alessio said. “It’s a very quiet place.”
Hope House could keep using the Ramada if funds become available to do so. Otherwise, it is working on contingency plans with Maine Housing and the city of Bangor.
“I know that nobody is going to be left standing outside on Oct. 1,” D’Alessio said. “But I don’t know what it’s going to look like yet.”
While Gov. Janet Mills has lifted many COVID-19 restrictions, Hope House staff are continuing to enforce social distancing at the shelter, as such requirements remain in place there. Vaccinations aren’t required to stay in the shelter, though they are encouraged and most residents are vaccinated, D’Alessio said.
The addition of the Ramada had reduced the number of people staying on the street in Bangor, he said. But it hasn’t addressed one of homelessness’ root problems, which is a shortage of affordable housing, D’Alessio said.
A spokesperson for the Ramada Inn’s parent organization, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, did not respond to a request for comment.