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Business and Economy

How Bangor Is Dealing With A Growing Homeless Population As Winter Arrives In Maine

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Robbie Feinberg
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Maine Public
Torelin Jager, the city of Bangor's homeless outreach caseworker, assisting Robert Autin inside her office.

Recent storms leave no doubt winter that has arrived in Bangor. The city saw how challenging last winter was for residents experiencing homelessness.

This year, the city has worked to alleviate the situation, and has created a new position, a dedicated homeless outreach caseworker, who will work with the increasing number of unsheltered residents that regional groups say has reached "unprecedented" levels in Bangor.

Torelin Jager opens her car door outside a shelter and drives 59-year-old Robert Autin to her office a few minutes away. Jager often crisscrosses the city over the course of the week, visiting shelters and encampments and offering assistance. Jager's job, as the city's homeless outreach caseworker, was created earlier this year as part of an effort to support the growing number of unsheltered city residents, which officials say is partly driven by a shortage of affordable housing, as well as more people from across the state seeking out Bangor as a service center. A count from this summer found there were nearly 130 homeless residents in greater Bangor who weren't staying in a shelter. More than 40 percent weren't from the city.

Added up, the issues have stretched some social services. Bangor Police Sgt. Wade Betters says that last winter, with shelters routinely filled, the police station lobby turned into a de facto shelter for up to 20 people on some nights.

"Last winter was really tough, obviously, on the folks that are living outside," Betters says. "But the police station is not the answer for a nighttime warming shelter."

So city staff and counselors met earlier this year and planned several steps to try to alleviate the problem. This summer, the city hired Jager. She visits encampments to talk with residents, connect them to services, and help them navigate a complicated housing and social service system.

"Talk about what's going on," she says. "And then we plug resources around those folks. And then from there, we assist them with filling out housing applications, voucher applications, whatever they might qualify for."

Inside Jager's office, she flips through paperwork as she assists 59-year-old Robert Autin, who moved to the city about a decade ago from Louisiana.

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Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
/
Maine Public
Inside Jager's office, she flips through paperwork as she assists 59-year-old Robert Autin, who moved to the city about a decade ago from Louisiana.

"And she walked up on me in a tent," Autin says. "Asked if we needed help. Clothes, food. All kinds of stuff. Checked on us every day."

Autin says after spending past winters hidden away behind stores or under bridges, this year's been different. He now stays in a shelter. And he and Jager are searching for apartments, as he just got off the waitlist for a federal housing voucher.

"I'm getting older," he says. "I survived many winters out there just in a tent. Yeah, I'm getting a little too old for that. So anything to be out of that weather."

Rindy Fogler, assistant director of Bangor Public Health and Community Services, says the city has explored another option for certain residents, too. If someone can show that they have a friend or family member who'll support and house them in another town or state, and city staff can verify they'll have a solid housing plan, they will pay for a bus ticket to send them there.

"If there is no housing, there is no room in the shelter, and they have something waiting for them at the other end of a bus ride, doesn't it make sense? Is that not the humane thing to do? And that's where we ended up with that."

Fogler says the changes have made a difference. City outreach workers have helped to house about a dozen people so far, she says, and another 13 have received bus tickets. But even with those changes, shelters are still near-capacity. Even a warming center which opened last year, thanks to outside fundraising, is nearly full, says Boyd Kronholm, the executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.

"And we've already blown the top off the numbers from last year," he says. "Last night, I think we had standing room only. We can hold 40. So we're getting a lot more use, and our shelter beds are also full.”

And an old brick building called the Brick Church has also helped to fill the gaps this winter. The non-denominational Biker Church USA officially purchased the building in September. And Assistant Administrator Tracy Marley says it has opened an overnight warming center. The city says that's had a big impact — particularly for residents who may have been banned from other shelters due to behavioral problems.

"We can just be there all the time, which is the beautiful thing about being open, at least at some hour, for seven days," Marley says. "So people have somewhere to go if they need somebody to talk to. It makes a big difference thinking that somebody cares about you when you're on the streets."

While city staff say they're grateful for the groups that have stepped up, they acknowledge there's a lot more that needs to be done, including building more affordable housing. But some in the city are also hoping for statewide action to get other municipalities to provide more support and assistance to residents experiencing homelessness. They say that could lessen the load on service centers like Bangor.