The city is asking homeless residents living under the Interstate 395 bridge to leave by December 1 due to potential dangers that could arise with inclement weather. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The city of Bangor is asking more than a dozen people living by the Penobscot River under the Interstate 395 bridge that spans Bangor and Brewer to leave by Dec. 1 and plans to issue trespass orders to those who do not.

The attempt to clear out the encampment is the latest chapter of an ongoing homelessness problem in the city that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated. In a city that serves as the regional hub for eastern Maine’s homeless population, the topic dominated the recent City Council election, with residents divided on how best to address the problem.

The city wants people to leave the encampment due to dangers that could arise with the arrival of winter, especially because the cleared-out area beyond the end of the Bangor waterfront footpath is challenging for emergency vehicles to reach.

The Bangor Police Department’s community relations officer, Elizabeth Ashe, went to the homeless encampment under the Interstate 395 bridge on Wednesday morning to issue warnings to everyone living there that they need to be out by Dec. 1. Torelin Jager, the city’s homeless outreach case worker (background), was with officer Ashe to connect people to services, including potential housing and substance use treatment. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Bangor police think the encampment has dwindled to about 12 to 15 people from 30 two weeks ago, Chief Mark Hathaway said, though encampment populations can fluctuate.

“Once snow and ice comes, we won’t be able to access that area if anyone needs help,” said Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell, who noted that plowing the snow was unrealistic.

Many in the encampment also use the Penobscot River for bathing and to go to the bathroom, O’Donnell said. If someone needed assistance there, it would be difficult for emergency services to reach them, she said.

City staff initially spoke to the people there about relocating by Nov. 19, O’Donnell said, and they seemed ready to do so. But once that date came, many had refused to move. Realizing that they wouldn’t move voluntarily, city staff decided to seek the City Council’s input, which happened at the council’s Monday meeting.

“Unfortunately, many of the folks in that area do not want services,” O’Donnell said. “They are not interested in moving. They made that clear.”

Officer Elizabeth Ashe talks with Todd Johnson, who lives in a tent at the encampment under the Interstate 395 bridge, about having to leave the area by Dec. 1 due to potential dangers that could arise with inclement weather. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Todd Johnson lives in a tent at the encampment. He has been homeless the last few years after he said he was evicted. He used to work as a convenience store clerk, he said Wednesday morning as a Bangor police officer warned those staying there that they needed to leave by Dec. 1.

Johnson said he understood why the city wanted people out of there, with the weather growing colder. He has also seen fighting and a lot of drug use at the site. Still, he said there is a culture of giving around the encampment if you’re honest with others.

While he wasn’t entirely sure where he would go next, he was thinking of traveling south to Boston.

“Being homeless isn’t fun,” Johnson said. “People think it’s like camping. It’s not like camping, not in the wintertime. It’s scary out here.”

The council on Monday acquiesced to plans to remove those staying at the site, though some councilors, including Angela Okafor and Dina Yacoubagha, asked if the city would connect them with services.

Forcing people who are homeless to move is uncomfortable, but ultimately it’s in the best interest of those living in the encampment, City Council Chair Rick Fournier said.

“In my mind, it’s all about safety,” he said.

The police department’s community relations officer, Elizabeth Ashe, traveled to the encampment on Wednesday morning with Torelin Jager, the city’s homeless outreach case worker. While Ashe issued warnings to everyone living there that they needed to be out by Dec. 1, Jager was on hand to connect them to services, including potential housing and substance use treatment.

Community Relations Officer Elizabeth Ashe and Torelin Jager, the city’s homeless outreach case worker, walk through the homeless encampment under the Interstate 395 bridge on Wednesday morning to let everyone living there know that they need to be out by Dec. 1. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Both struck a warm, non-aggressive tone as they went tent to tent.

“Dec. 1 is going to be move-out day,” Ashe said to someone in one tent. “I want to make sure you have fair notice.”

While those living at the encampment are homeless, Jager said that some housed people travel there. One man who drove in on Wednesday was visiting a friend to check on her. She once lived a promising life, he said, but the last few years had been rough.

Several of the tents were empty Wednesday morning, with their owners appearing to be away.

Like in other encampments, the residents there formed something of a community, Johnson said. They all knew each other and several had decorated their tents. There was a skeleton up for Halloween, for example.

But the area is messy.

Items were strewn about the tents on the dirt road, from empty food containers to propane tanks. One man had a copy of a “Lord of the Rings” book outside his tent.

Used needles and needle caps litter the ground of a homeless encampment under the Interstate 395 bridge. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

A plethora of needles also littered the area. One person living there had put several inside a two-liter cola bottle. She said she had gathered them to keep others safe.

The city’s efforts to clear the waterfront encampment come soon after city staff spent two days cleaning up a homeless encampment on Cleveland Street — located behind the Hope House homeless shelter — in anticipation of the winter months. However, the city has not asked those people to leave.