“It was the best of towns; it was the worst of towns.”
— Apologies to Charles Dickens

The best of Brunswick is wonderfully apparent in our welcoming response to the approximately 80 asylum-seekers who have taken up residence among us in the past six months. The Town Council and administration welcomed these new residents and even hired a cultural broker to assist with language barriers and cultural education, and the town manager continues to meet regularly with those groups and volunteers assisting the asylum-seekers.

The outpouring of empathy, generosity, and energy in volunteering from our Brunswick residents has been nothing short of astounding. More than 100 volunteers are contributing their time, energy, and creativity as drivers, mentors, tutors, and family support teams to help meet the many challenges these new residents face. Non-profit groups in our community, TEAN (The Emergency Action Network), the Midcoast New Mainer Support Group, Bowdoin College, the Midcoast Hunger Food Bank, the Seventh Day Adventist Community Center (clothing bank), local churches and religious communities, Midcoast Literacy and Merrymeeting Bay Adult Education, and more have risen to the enormous challenge. Teachers, school administrators and coaches, as well as lawyers, doctors, dentists, and Midcoast Hospital have contributed greatly also. Our response to the asylum-seekers represents Brunswick at its best.

The less-than-best of Brunswick was painfully revealed in the recent death of Russell Williams, who died in his sleeping bag along the railroad tracks under the Federal Street Bridge on a bitterly cold night. Russell was born and raised here and was a veteran. He had multiple problems that kept him perpetually on the precarious edge of life. But he also was a person of warmth who counted everyone as a friend. In a town with the resources we have, Russell should not have died as he did. The circumstances of his death will remain an embarrassment and shame for all of us until we are willing to muster the moral and economic courage to address the issue of chronic homelessness and lack of adequate, affordable housing for those whose needs are no less great than those of the asylum-seekers, and who have been part of our community for all or most of their lives.

More than 100 guests, volunteers, and staff packed into The Gathering Place last week to grieve and celebrate Russell’s life. It was a deeply moving experience of healing solidarity among those present. Just as apparent was the absence and silence from any member of the town administration or the Town Council. The repeated failure of our town to find a way to strengthen and expand the vital work of Tedford Shelter or seriously address the affordable housing crisis testifies that we are not only or always “the best of towns.”

The good work we as a town are doing with the asylum-seekers has revealed gaps and omissions in our services to both the homeless, marginally-housed, or low-income residents as well. Three areas are in pressing need for action:

1. Cooperation with, and support for, the expansion of Tedford Shelter so that it can accommodate all who are without housing. Currently, a number of our daytime guests at The Gathering Place are sleeping in tents in the woods around town, most of them because the Shelter is at full capacity. Churches and other charitable enterprises need to be engaged and brought into the conversations with town officials and the Town Council.

2. Expand the Explorer bus service both in range and frequency of service. Many of the good things that Brunswick offers are only accessible to those with cars. Many of the approximately two thousand residents of the large trailer park on Bath Road have no way to provide transportation to the Head Start program for their children. There is, in fact, no bus service closer than Walmart (and that infrequently) for their own transportation needs. Asylum-seekers and others at the Pegasus Landing apartments who must go to Portland for immigration or medical appointments, must walk to Merrymeeting Plaza to catch the Explorer bus to Brunswick Station to connect with the Breeze bus to Portland. If they return in late afternoon, they have no transportation back to the Landing because the Explorer has already ceased operation for the day in mid-afternoon. Expanding the frequency and range of the Explorer bus service to the Landing and the residents of the Bath Road trailer park, would also address the needs for residents of downtown who would like to make more use of the Rec Center and Bath Y facilities there, but do not have cars.

3. Actively seek and plan for more affordable housing through changes to zoning laws, negotiations with developers, and the relevant state and federal agencies and non-profits. The community conversations on affordable housing held at Curtis Library have been valuable in helping us to see both the problems and some possibilities. But none of the possibilities can become a reality without real support and engagement from the Town Council and administration in cooperation with other agencies.

We may not ever be able to resolve all the problems that our most vulnerable residents face, but with the resources Brunswick has, and with the right amount of moral and political will, we can and must strive to always be “the best of towns.”

Larry R. Kalajainen is volunteer and board member of The Gathering Place.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: