Bangor church offers a lifeline for homeless population on cold winter nights
By Kathleen O’Brien, Bangor Daily News Staff
On a cold December Thursday night, John Michaud of Milo walked up the steps of the Mansion Church in Bangor with his laptop bag slung over his shoulder, greeting people waiting outside by name.
At 6 p.m. on the dot, Michaud, 38, welcomed people into the Center Street church one by one, searched them for any prohibited items, then asked them to sign in.
Those who had lined up were members of Bangor’s growing homeless population, in search of a warm place to spend the night. On the night of Dec. 15, the Mansion Church’s warming center was that place.
It’s been an option since the early days of COVID-19 pandemic, when shelters had to reduce their capacity, giving homeless residents fewer places to go. And it’s remained a crucial, volunteer-run service as the area’s homeless population has grown. Entities like the Mansion Church have stepped in to help, running solely on contributions and volunteer labor.
A Bangor Daily News reporter and photographer spent the evening of Dec. 15 at the warming center for a behind-the-scenes look at a lifeline for the city’s homeless population.
Once everyone was inside the cozy church with a hot plate of food, Michaud sat at a card table, opened his laptop and invited people to sit beside him to help them register online for services they might need.
“I’ve always been inclined to help the less fortunate,” Michaud said. “I feel it’s my calling because anyone could be homeless — it could be me. A lot of people don’t like the homeless, but they’re human beings. If you show someone love, it goes a long way.”
Though he only began volunteering a month ago, Michaud said he has helped people register for MaineCare, food stamps and Social Security benefits. He also helps people look for housing and jobs.
“I try to speak on the homeless’ behalf because some don’t have the ability to reach out to resources or employers,” Michaud said. “If I can help them get their foot in the door, they can do the rest.”
Michaud, who drives to Bangor from Milo twice a week, is one of five people who volunteer regularly at the church’s warming center.
After starting the Mansion Church in 2019, Pastor Terry Dinkins began opening the church’s doors on winter nights to serve as a warming center in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced shelters to reduce their capacity.
One hundred people have stayed in the warming center since it began, some for only one night while others return every night, according to Dinkins.
Aside from receiving a hot meal and a warm place to stay, people can take showers, have their laundry washed, and get new clothes and shoes from the church’s cache of donations in the basement. The church also offers pre-made kits of provisions including socks and toiletries.
A core group of at least 10 people enter the warming center each night, Dinkins said, but the group can swell to 25 when it’s especially cold, rainy or snowy.
The center operates solely on community donations, Dinkins said. It doesn’t receive funding from the city, state or federal governments.
As Michaud helped people register for benefits and services at one table, Jon Shuahacker was at another table, urging his 4-year-old daughter to eat the hot meal the church served that night — stir fry and salad. It was the third night the father and daughter had stayed at the Mansion Church.
They arrived in Bangor in September with Shuahacker’s mother-in-law from McCook, Nebraska.
“We couldn’t stay in McCook because the job market is so bad there,” Shuahacker, 43, said. “Up here we have better opportunities, but the housing costs up here are insane.”
The family has been unhoused since they left a campground where they rented a camper that had faulty heat, a leaking ceiling, black mold and a weak floor.
“It was only fit for a junkyard,” Shuahacker said. “It had become a health and safety hazard. Some people target desperate situations and take advantage of them. The homeless population is especially vulnerable to that.”
The family lived in a pickup truck for about a week until they were directed to the Mansion Church, where they plan to return every night until they find housing, Shuahacker said.
Shuahacker, his daughter and mother-in-law are among the warming center’s new guests.
Dustin Lacoote, meanwhile, is one of its regulars. He’s stayed at the center each night it has been open over the past year before leaving around 4 a.m. each morning to go to work.
Lacoote, 39, said he has been homeless for the past four years after he “got into the drug and alcohol scene. Now I’m trying to get back on my feet.”
He began coming to the warming center after attending services at the Mansion Church.
“I was tired of being cold at night and alone and was looking for change in my life,” Lacoote said. “I thought being inside and around other people who weren’t drinking and doing drugs might help motivate me, and it has pushed me in the right direction. They make you feel at home even though there are a lot of rules to abide by, but that structure is good.”
Some of the warming center volunteers previously experienced homelessness themselves and used the warming center, Dinkins said. Among those are Jeffrey Mercier, 52, of Bangor, who serves food at the center each night.
“I ended up spending some time here myself last winter, and volunteering is a good way to give back,” Mercier said.
A lifelong struggle with substance use disorder led him to become homeless for nearly a year in Bangor last year, he said, but he connected with Dinkins, who “helped me get my life straightened out.”
“I’m back on the right path now and doing what I need to do to stay clean,” he said.