BANGOR, Maine — Now that elections are out of the way, Bangor City Council members are getting adjusted to their new and continuing roles, while thinking through the issues and what to prioritize.
City council member Joseph Leonard was re-elected to the committee to serve another term, and the city added two brand new members, Carolyn Fish and Susan Deane. Council members were sworn into office Monday, Nov. 13.
Leonard said last year was difficult for council members because they had to decide how to allocate American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Leonard said members had to attend several meetings to determine how the funds would be divided and spent.
He said this year he plans to push harder, working with other council members to hopefully implement a “Housing First model.”
Housing First is an approach that various municipalities and states across the country are introducing as a resolve to slow or eliminate the increasing unhoused population in the U.S. by prioritizing permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Leonard said cities, towns and Maine’s government are wasting time, giving long think-piece theories for how to decrease homelessness, and he said it’s time to put plans into action.
“We have to understand that housing is a human right, and we have to understand that human value is more important than the value of land and the value of a building,” Leonard said.
He said the Housing First method has helped countries like Finland eradicate homelessness in its communities. Leonard said with the Maine State Housing Authority estimating that the state needs to build 84,000 homes by the year 2030, the dire need for housing cannot be ignored.
Leonard said Maine in particular has more than enough land to set aside for new housing projects. He said the state also has a sturdy rainy-day fund that could be used to cover the cost for widespread housing projects. Leonard said he believes building homes for people who are experiencing homelessness, those struggling with drug abuse and addiction, and the elderly should be at the forefront of the city’s and the state’s concern.
He said more affordable housing could also be made available for those who make up the everyday working class who lack stable living because they don’t make enough money. Leonard said making sure people are properly housed can reduce Bangor, and potentially all of Maine’s, overall emergency and crisis cost.
“I would actually argue that the investment of more housing is actually going to have a net gain in prosperity because the amount of money that we’ll be saving by having our fire department and police department respond to fewer and fewer calls related to those who [are] living on the streets—that’s going to save a lot of money,” Leonard said.
Leonard added that its nearly impossible for people battling drug addiction to get clean when they don’t have secure housing.
All options for housing should be explored, he said. Bangor could also consider repurposing vacant commercial buildings that are in decent shape as shelters, he added. However, he warned that vacant buildings would need to pass code enforcement inspections to prevent jeopardization of people’s comfort and right to clean, livable and quality living quarters.
New council member Carolyn Fish said she didn’t realize how many resolutions Bangor City Council already had in motion, saying that like many community members, she too was guilty of over-criticizing city leaders without adequate context; questioning why progress on critical issues like housing and drug addiction and abuse isn’t being made faster.
Fish said she has quite a bit of a learning curve as a new council member, but she said she wants to work towards finding ways to better support the working class.
“I think a lot of the average taxpaying family that is struggling with the groceries, and the gas, and the childcare, and the fuel and all these other things—I think that they’re feeling left behind,” Fish said.
Fish said it is critical that the working class feels heard and considered.
Newly elected council member Susan Deane said she wants to listen and hear all suggestions from community members and other council members to determine ways to make improvements that will best serve the people and the city of Bangor. She said city council members are just one piece of the puzzle.
“Sometimes people just become complacent and think that things can’t change—but they can change,” Deane said. “But, we need involvement from everyone. You know, the city council may be where you think all the decisions are coming from, but there’s a lot leading up to every decision that’s made, and the people of Bangor need to make their voices known.”
Leonard said he hopes council members can put together a tangible, well-thought-out plan on how to approach the housing and drug crisis in Bangor. He said he also wants to work towards creating better lines of communication between Bangor City Council members and council members who represent surrounding municipalities since each city in Maine is facing the same or similar issues.
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