In this April 22, 2020, file photo, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter is seen on Main Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Mary-Michael Billings of Orrington is the author of “Travelers Dispossessed” and recently lost a son to an overdose.

The Sept. 23 Bangor Daily article “Board opposes shelter zoning change” caught my attention. Upon reading further I learned that the proposal was to allow shelters in zones meant for government and institutional buildings. The opposition centered on the usual not-in-my-backyard comments and the fact that public schools are government institutions therefore shelters don’t belong near them.  

Frankly, I think an addendum to the proposal could solve the issue of proximity to a school quite easily. However, the NIMBY opposition to shelters is more difficult to address. It goes along with the final quote in the article: “Everyone 100 percent agrees that Bangor has become the regional center for homelessness and substance abuse.” In other words, we don’t want to attract outsiders by providing services.

My purpose in writing this piece is not to question the accuracy of this comment or the need to keep shelters away from public schools, but rather to pose a few questions? Answers will help guide us in dealing with the ever-present homeless population, and not ignore the silent epidemic of drug overdose as deaths skyrocket out of control.

My first question is: Why does Maine, not just Bangor, have such a high rate of death by overdose? According to the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, 504 people died of an overdose in Maine in 2020. This year, we are averaging 50 deaths a month. This epidemic is affecting young people disproportionately as they struggle economically and in their personal lives.

Second, if homelessness is linked to substance use, which is the symptom and which is the cause? If we ask why someone is homeless or why someone died of a drug overdose, we must be prepared for a variety of answers. Reading or hearing about one person’s story will reveal much. Hearing many people’s stories will show us more.  

With apologies to the person quoted above, I could say that everyone agrees 100 percent that poor people are more likely to be homeless than those with means. Or that poor people in the neighborhood bring down home values and that poor people and drug users might steal something from you.

But this stereotypical thinking does nothing to help the situation. It only sweeps it under the rug. Out of sight and out of mind. If you know someone who is, or was, afflicted by addiction or someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, someone with no fallback support or someone struggling with mental illness, you know that the stereotypes don’t come near to telling their stories.

When it comes to zoning for shelters and treatment centers, a basic question is whether the local government has a responsibility to help. Does a city have a responsibility to provide spaces for treatment of people addicted to drugs? Does a city have any responsibility in assisting the homeless? If the answer is yes, then properties zoned for government and institutions are the proper place for facilities to be built. If It isn’t the city’s concern, is it the state’s responsibility? Does the state have suitable property in the government/institutional zones that could be used?

Maine has recently received millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan. Social service providers and non-profit organizations have requested a portion of these monies for treatment programs for the mentally ill, and rehabilitation programs for those recovering from addiction. I applaud these efforts.

Ghosting those among us most in need of our support might make us feel more comfortable in the short run, but it will haunt us in the end. It took three spirits to save Ebenezer Scrooge‘s soul. How many will it take to prod Bangor’s elected officials into action?