Jeff Sandler, of Sanford, who is homeless, speaks with social worker Shannon Bentley, left, and Sanford police Sgt. Colleen Adams at the homeless encampment where he has been living with his wife. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SANFORD — It’s been 10 months since Jeff and Tami Sandler were forced to move out of their home.

Ten months of taking it 24 hours at a time. Ten months of wondering what comes next. Ten months of living in a tent in the woods and dreading the rain and cold.

“We never thought we were going to make it through the first week,” said Jeff Sandler, 55. “We thought this was how it was going to end.”

They live off her $930 Social Security disability income, though he says he’s also disabled and unable to work and should be approved for his own benefits soon.

After losing the room they rented for several years for $860 a month, the Sandlers were unable to find another apartment they could afford. Their only choice was to move into a small tent in a wooded area behind a business park in south Sanford.

The number of homeless people in Sanford has been growing rapidly in recent years.


Two years ago, this small city of 22,000 counted 10 homeless people. At the end of November, there were 153.

“Every town is experiencing people living outside. It’s really a regional issue, and we have to start thinking about it differently,” said Diane Small, executive director of the Sanford Housing Authority. “It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s Sanford, it’s Biddeford, it’s Portland.’ It’s every single town.”

Sgt. Colleen Adams of the Sanford Police Department’s mental health unit looks over the numbers of homeless people in Sanford before going out on her rounds. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But Sanford has taken its own approach, focused on providing aid. Officials acknowledge it will be hard to sustain as the numbers keep going up.

City officials say they see homeless people not as problems to be dealt with but as residents they can help. The city provides them with portable toilets, free access to showers and trash removal at the encampments. It doesn’t clear encampments and force people out, unless they’re on private property and the property owner requests it. Even in that case, city leaders say, they would consider finding another place for those displaced people to camp on public land.

That’s a contrast to Portland, which also provides outreach but has cleared several encampments this year as its much larger homeless population has continued to grow. It has not offered other land in the city to the displaced people unwilling or ineligible to move into a shelter.

In Sanford, since early summer, a task force made up of city staff, service agencies, community organizations and the police department’s mental health unit has met biweekly to coordinate resources and figure out how best to meet the needs of people who are homeless.


Social worker Shannon Bentley, left, and Sanford police Sgt. Colleen Adams, center, pick up food to bring to the homeless encampments on Nov. 29 with the help of Denise Clark, right, director of community meals at the Curtis Lake Church in Sanford. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Sandlers, who are especially vulnerable, recently secured an emergency housing voucher through the housing authority and will move into an apartment this month.

But getting others off the street has become increasingly complex, with growing numbers of homeless people and extremely limited resources in York County.

Some people are living in cars – including a 4-year-old with a guardian – while others stay in small encampments behind commercial buildings or off trails deep in the woods.

Individual tents are scattered throughout the city’s 52 square miles, often tucked far out of view. In the largest encampment downtown, 30 people live along a narrow strip of woods between a river and an old mill building.

The city’s homeless people range in age from 4 to 77. Nearly all are from Sanford.

“We know every one of these individuals. We know their names. We know their stories as to why they are unhoused. We know their needs,” City Manager Steven Buck said. “We’re large enough to muster the resources, but we’re small enough to deal with them on an individual basis. We’re getting to the tipping point where we won’t be able to do that.”



Their workday on Sanford’s mental health unit has just started, but the list of things Sanford police Sgt. Colleen Adams and social worker Shannon Bentley want to accomplish is already long. They’ll spend this late November day visiting encampments. They want to check in on the Sandlers and stop by a church to ask about food donations. In the afternoon, they’ll set up an assembly line in their office kitchen to make sandwiches, because on Wednesdays, no one else distributes food to those on the streets.

A large bulletin board in their office is covered with envelopes full of donated gift cards to Hannaford, Walmart, coffee shops and restaurants. A storage closet is filled with basic winter clothing.

Gift cards and vouchers for showers hang on a board inside the office of the Sanford Police Department’s mental health unit. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It’s cold on this morning, with the wind chill down in the mid-teens. As Adams and Bentley pack up, they talk about trying to make sure everyone is warm enough. They load a cruiser with the usual bottles of water and food, but also blankets and a bag of socks, hats and hand-warmers. Unfortunately, they’re out of gloves and thermal underwear.

Their unit was formed about two years ago. Previously, a single officer was dedicated to working with people who are homeless or struggling with substance use and mental illness. The unit now includes two police officers and two clinicians – a combination that is critical to responding to the needs of the community in a way that is not possible with just patrol officers, said Maj. Matthew Gagne, who oversees support services for the department.

Their focus in the past year has largely been on homeless people, connecting them with service providers and trying to get around the problems they have finding housing. Sometimes that means driving people to appointments or bringing them to government offices to get the IDs or birth certificates they need to access assistance.


Bentley and Adams head first this morning to Heritage Crossing, the large encampment near the old mills. It is on private property, but the owner hasn’t asked the city to clear it. That’s good because they know it is destabilizing to move people from a spot where they feel safe and where the team can easily check on them.

The encampment was hidden from view until the leaves fell. Now, tents and tarps can be seen from the road.

“Hey, Mikey, are you here? Do you need anything?” Adams calls out to a tent at the edge of the parking lot next to the encampment. Mikey calls back that he’s all set.

There is nowhere easy to send most of the people who are living outside in the cold here.

Social worker Shannon Bentley stops to speak with a homeless woman inside a tent on Nov. 29. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In all of York County, there are only 36 emergency shelter beds, and all of them are full. They are located at the York County Shelter Programs in Alfred, which has a long wait list and requires residents to be sober and mentally under control.

The county shelter program opened a new low-barrier warming shelter this month at the Lafayette School with space for 42 people and daily meals. A resource hub on the second floor of the school will be used to coordinate case management and services. The city will soon launch a new community paramedicine program to provide medical care.


But there are still few resources for people seeking treatment for substance use and mental illness. It is exceptionally difficult to get people into treatment when they want it, Gagne said.

“Shelters are full. Jails are full. Hospitals are full,” he said. “The unfortunate thing is our unit doesn’t have resources to give people.”

The mental health unit now meets people with a wide variety of issues, including more who have been evicted because they couldn’t afford rent increases. There has been a noticeable uptick in older residents like the Sandlers becoming homeless because their Social Security income hasn’t kept up with the cost of apartments, Gagne said.

Bentley and Adams head into the woods, stepping carefully through the underbrush and calling out at each tent. It’s cold, and it’s early. Most people are still inside.

“Anybody here? Just checking on you to make sure you’re OK,” Adams calls at each campsite.

She talks with a newcomer and gives him some gift cards to buy supplies and food. Nearby, Bentley steps under the tarp covering of one tent to talk with the man inside about his chronic health condition and how his tent almost caught fire.


“They’re all in survival mode,” Bentley said.


On the trail that leads out of the woods at Heritage Crossing, Adams and Bentley meet Dave Goodwin and ask if he’s warm enough. They load him up with a blanket, socks, hats and bottles of water.

Goodwin, who is from Sanford, has been homeless for three years. At times, he has been able to stay with a friend or during the pandemic – in a hotel, but he’s been in a tent for the past month. His dog is being fostered, and he’s looking for a job.

Social worker Shannon Bentley hands a blanket to Dave Goodwin, who has been homeless for three years, during a visit to a homeless encampment near Heritage Crossing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He says he had a housing voucher but couldn’t come up with the $3,000 security deposit to move in. He’s glad the mental health unit checks in on him and says they’ve been a big help.

“I’ve had a string of bad luck,” Goodwin says. “I’m slowly digging myself out.”


His is the kind of case Sanford’s Homelessness Task Force often discusses.

When the task force meets at the police department, about 35 people crowd the room, including city officials and police, as well as representatives from the school department, York County Shelter Programs and York County Community Action. They’re looking for solutions of all types: short-term, mid-term, long-term.

Coordinating resources has been critical, says Buck, the city manager.

Some work has focused on addressing basic, immediate needs, like placing portable toilets outside the police station. Others are more complicated, like trying to break down the stigmas that make landlords hesitant to rent to people who have been homeless.

Harder still are the more concrete changes they’re after, such as creating more low-barrier shelters and apartment complexes with a housing-first model that first puts roofs over people’s heads, then gets them the help that they need.

Adams estimates about 80 of the people who are now homeless in Sanford need support services to move into stable housing.


The city is hosting a countywide forum on Monday with elected state and local officials and anyone else working on solutions. The mental health unit will give a presentation about the homeless population. Local officials plan to push state officials for more low-barrier shelter beds.

The Sanford Housing Authority is planning to build a 30-unit housing-first complex to give chronically homeless people a place to live without preconditions such as clean credit histories, references or security deposits. The apartments will come with support services: onsite caseworkers available at all times, access to a food pantry, counselors and job training.

Small said the housing authority is looking for a location near stores and services. It hopes to partner with a developer with housing-first experience and has applied for funding through MaineHousing.


Adams and Bentley’s second stop is at the isolated campsite where the Sandlers have been staying. They’re the couple’s only regular visitors and have come to know them well. They’ve been checking on them regularly, several times a week, for 10 months now.

Sgt. Colleen Adams is reflected in the rearview mirror as she drives through Sanford to visit homeless encampments. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As they made their way to the campsite, Bentley and Adams talked about what furniture the couple will need in their apartment and where they might find it. Adams has an extra daybed and Bentley has a table and chairs, but they want to make sure the Sandlers also have a proper bed.


They pass the remains of the campsite where a homeless manstill officially unidentified – died Nov. 25 after a fire in his tent. Adams and Bentley had been trying to get the man and his wife into housing. He was the second homeless person to die in Sanford in a month. The first was a suspected overdose. Three homeless people died each year in 2021 and 2022.

Their deaths weigh heavily on the mental health unit team.

When they get to the Sandlers’ tent, Adams and Bentley check that they are heating their tent safely. Jeff Sandler says they run their portable propane heater for 10 minutes at a time and never when they’re sleeping. It shuts off automatically if it tips over.

Their conversation shifts to the new apartment.

Adams offers to help them move their belongings and promises to search for furniture. Sandler hasn’t seen the apartment but says “it will be like going into a palace.”

He credits Adams and the team for making it happen. When they lost their apartment, he and his wife of 28 years didn’t have family to turn to for help.


“We didn’t have anybody to catch us when we fell,” Jeff Sandler said.

It has “absolutely destroyed and ruined me,” he says, to see the toll this life has taken on his wife, who has serious heart conditions and needs surgery. He says he hopes they will both start to heal when they move into their apartment, but he’s frustrated there isn’t more help for others living outside.

“We didn’t have to suffer the way we did,” he said.

Social worker Shannon Bentley walks with Dave Goodwin, who is homeless, as they visit an encampment. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For now, the mental health unit does what it can to ease at least the immediate suffering.

They know which church they can go to for coats and boots and which food pantry will put together bags to drop off at campsites.

They’re trying to figure out how to make a free meal available every day – ideally twice a day – and are turning to community volunteers.


After visiting campsites, Adams and Bentley stopped by Curtis Lake Church, where volunteers had just assembled food boxes.

Denise Clark, the director of community meals, agreed to set aside lunchmeat for sandwiches when she has it and to make a box for a family Bentley works with. She takes them to the pantry, where she loads a cart with crackers, hand wipes and other items for Adams and Bentley to distribute. She gives them a large box of bread donated by a bakery to use later in the day when they make sandwiches.

The community gives generously to neighbors in need, but city officials say they can only do so much without more state and federal aid.

“This has gone beyond our ability to deal with at the local level,” Buck said.

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