Though advocates say using hotels as transition housing helps homeless people find long-term places to live, Bangor city officials say they do not favor using this option as a way to help reduce the city’s growing homeless population.
That’s why the city does not object to the Ramada Inn on Odlin Road reverting to being a normal hotel again in September, when federal pandemic funding to house homeless people there runs out. The hotel has been used exclusively as a homeless shelter since last fall to help protect residents from being exposed to COVID-19.
Dan Tremble, chairman of Bangor City Council, said that despite Bangor’s growing homeless population, he doesn’t think using hotels as homeless shelters is “the way to go” in Bangor.
He acknowledged that the privacy offered by hotels, where residents have their own bedrooms and bathrooms, can help with getting homeless people on the path to long-term housing. Advocates for the homeless — sometimes called “houseless” — say that the discomforts of congregate living, in which residents have to share such spaces with one another, sometimes discourages homeless people from getting assistance.
“But I’m sure there are other appropriate places [besides hotels] with good living conditions so people can have some dignity,” Tremble said.
Bangor’s homeless population has ballooned from around 30 in the fall of 2019 to close to 200, Tremble said, creating a problem for which city officials have found few clear solutions. In 2019 the city hired Torelin Jager as its homeless outreach coordinator and tasked her with visiting encampments to connect homeless people with services.
A primary issue for directing clients to hotels such as the Ramada has been that hotels don’t lend themselves to the level of monitoring needed for people who often have mental health and substance use disorder issues, Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow said.
Using the Ramada as a homeless shelter also has affected nearby property owners.
Having a business near the Ramada had been a “nightmare,” Fielder’s Choice Ice Cream owner Mike Jillson said last month.
In April, a man staying at the Ramada allegedly set fire to a storage building at his business. It was one of multiple criminal incidents that has occurred at the Ramada since it began housing homeless residents early in the pandemic, Jillison said.
Police responses to the Ramada were far more common early in the pandemic, especially in March and April 2020, when part of the hotel was first used as a shelter. Such incidents lessened as the Penobscot Community Health Care, which oversees operation of the shelter, brought in more staff members and increased monitoring, authorities said.
Advocates say that letting houseless people stay in hotel rooms make them more likely to seek out social services and could help put them on the path to long-term housing. They feel that non-congregate shelters should be seen as an option by the city going forward, even if they are not set up at hotels.
Nationally, the development of non-congregate shelters, born out of the need for COVID-19 precautions, has created a new model to fight homelessness, said University of Pennsylvania professor of social policy Dennis Culhane, whose work focuses on homelessness and assisted housing policy.
Along with enhancing the living conditions for homeless populations, the shelters have increased access to mental health services and case management advisors, Culhane said. California and Oregon are now purchasing hotels for such use.
However, homeless shelters of any kind, which often are expensive endeavors funded by charitable contributions rather than governmental agencies, are not a sustainable long-term solution for homelessness, Culhane said. He believes temporarily housing people in shelters should always be the explicit goal of helping people gain stable housing within 60 days.
Culhane said hotel-style shelters, so far, have shown themselves to be the far superior model in achieving such results.
“It has been transformative,” he said. “All across the country, we are hearing anecdotes that it has enabled people to really center themselves.”
Sam Bullard and Anthony Jackson, co-program directors of the human rights group Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine, said a downside of using the Ramada as a shelter has been the opposition from neighboring property owners. Of particular concern was the focus on the population’s criminality and drug use, which they said was victimizing at-risk people.
Jackson said it was bothersome that Bangor leaders highlight the voices of business and property owners over those of homeless residents themselves.
“There’s often not a whole lot of empathy for houseless people,” Bullard said. “They’re seen as less than people and more like a physical nuisance.”
Bullard and Jackson said the Ramada could be a model for future shelters in Bangor, though Jackson noted that the shelter had not created any new housing in the city as much as made up for beds lost due to COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions at f shelters.
Both felt that a conversion to a hotel-style shelter was far from a panacea. Fixing Bangor’s homeless problem required numerous solutions, they said, including more affordable housing and more residents to demand action from city officials on the homelessness issue.
The population served by the shelter is highly vulnerable, said Josh D’Alessio, director of the Hope House Shelter, which is part of Penobscot Community Health Care. The group views the Ramada as an extension of the Hope House.
D’Alessio noted that of 36 homeless shelters in Maine, the Hope House and its Ramada branch was one of two low-barrier shelters that try to turn away as few people as possible to keep the maximum number of people off the street.
“Our services provide shelter for over 150 people nightly, but a peaceful night doesn’t make the news,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of nights in our shelters are peaceful — people helping people, sharing their journey, swapping stories and working toward the day they no longer have to be in a shelter.”
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Bangor’s homeless outreach coordinator by an incorrect pronoun.