Taking Shelter, Finding Home

Taking Shelter, Finding Home

Part II of II

Dee and Destiny. Photo by Lisa Joy.

Emergency shelters provide vital resources, sanctuary, and community, which can make the difference between death and life. They improve quality of life for hundreds of homeless individuals in Maine every day. The Maine Housing Authority’s website lists 43 shelters* throughout Maine, a handful of them faith-affiliated. For the women in this article, one such haven provided a steadying hand and the practical and emotional foundation to begin new chapters—for two—on solid ground.

Women represented roughly 30 percent of homeless individuals nationwide in 2019, the same year that Maine women comprised the highest percentage (38 percent) of any state’s homeless women population.  Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness   In Maine as of December 7, 2020 . . . 82,000 households didn’t have enough to eat; up 17 percent from October45,000 households were behind on rent; up 80 percent from October Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

After 11 years of fund raising, a shelter in a residential Bangor neighborhood opened its doors to a particularly vulnerable niche population. Since 2003, the privately funded Shepherd’s Godparent Home has been serving pregnant women and teens and those mothering newborns. Its ministrations have been well received, and not only by clients.

“When the house next door went on sale in 2017, our neighbors urged us to buy it,” said director Barbara Ford. “How often is that the case for a shelter?”

Equally telling was the response of a local businessman. After hearing public testimony about the degree of impact the shelter had on one woman’s life, he bought the house for sale next door and gifted it. The three-room residence soon housed new mothers with older children and families escaping domestic violence.

“Godparent Home changed my life. It saved my life,” said Dee, 26, who stayed in one of the original nine bedrooms for a shorter time than she or staff expected. Despite this, her ties with them endure.

“The house mom I call ‘Gram’ is the nicest lady. I still go over for dinner, and we grocery shop together. She sat with me while I cried and didn’t know what to do. She was always there for me, and so was Barbara. That’s my family now,” she said.

Dee embraced the shelter’s help with budgeting, daily prayer time, and early morning hours for household chores.

“Their routines helped me schedule my life, which before was so chaotic. They also have really good people that work specifically with trauma who helped me a lot in group and individual sessions. They were there for me when nobody else was,” she said.

Born in Bar Harbor, Dee has traveled a long road since first leaving home at age 11, due to family abuse. She was 15 when her first child was born, and 19 at the birth of her second. Due to homelessness and drug use, she lost custody of both children (who still live with different family members) and relapsed after completing her first rehab program. Her drug use turned into drug trafficking, and she was arrested and jailed. After release, she began associating with drug dealers new to the area and soon was sex trafficked by them. Just 22, she feared for her life while moving in-state and interstate for a year and a half until a sting operation in 2017 broke up the trafficking ring. For roughly five months, she stayed in a “safe haven” bed for trafficking and domestic violence survivors in Portland. 

In 2018, while jailed in Penobscot County, a Bible study volunteer encouraged her to start going to church again. After her release, she did, and soon learned of Godparent Home, which she began visiting on weekends.

“I’d just found out I was pregnant and was scared to be a single parent and recovering addict bringing a child into this world with no support system or place to live,” Dee said.

Days before graduating from a second rehab program and facing life on the streets again, a room opened up. 

“God made it happen because there was no room available for weeks after I applied,” Dee said. 

Just five months into her stay, she received an unexpected call from public housing saying that a voucher for the chronically homeless had come through for her.

“I had no thought of leaving the shelter so soon, as I’d become a positive role model there,” said Dee.

But she trusted that things were unfolding for good reason, and moved into her very first apartment in August. She credits spirituality as “100 percent” important to her ongoing support and recovery.

“I prayed to get out of where I was at. I kept praying and kept on getting better results. I turned my life over to God and He provided for me.  This home is safe for me and better than I’ve ever had it,” she said.

Dee has been drug-free since October 15, 2019. Family members caring for her six-year-old began allowing her to video chat with her daughter over a year ago. She began a college course for substance abuse counseling last month.

“I’m grateful now to be able to reach out when I’m struggling and know that it’s okay not to be okay all the time,” she said. “There is hope, help, and something bigger out there. I don’t have to settle, and I’m not alone.”

*Maine Housing Authority (MHA) funds 36 shelters with a total 1,128 beds   In 2020 . . . – Demand (homeless, migrant farm workers, etc.) increased overall.
– Shelter stays were longer, as public housing was in short supply.
– Non-congregate spaces (e.g. hotel rooms) were in much higher demand. – MHA contracted with up to nine hotels, and, at press time, was funding 237 rooms at three hotels in Bangor, Lewiston, and Portland, which it intends to do so as long as needed. – New Hope for Women brokered a 15-fold increase (3,058) in “bed nights” for domestic violence survivors at hotels, B&Bs, and cabins in Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, and Waldo counties
Mackala, Niko, and Kai. Photo by Lisa Joy

Mackala, 23, a native of Ellsworth, also left home for the first time at age 11 and tented for several days.

“My parents weren’t fit to be parents,” she said. “They thought drinking and smoking pot with their children was a good idea.” They also taught her and her four brothers how to hunt, fish and camp.

She began working at 12 raking blueberries and selling vegetables. Her K–12 years were a maze of schools in at least six communities, as she moved back and forth between relatives in Texas and one parent’s home or the other. But living with them never worked out for long. One attempt resulted in a severe facial injury from a drunken beating.

At 13, she began staying with a friend whose parents were teachers. The interview for this article took place in that home.

“I slept in a closet room upstairs,” Mackala said, “Or I’d sleep in a tent near the high school or just fall asleep in the woods. I wore the same outfit for weeks on end.”

The calm, Christian household was a sanctuary on and off for almost a year, but the call to “have fun” was strong. She began couch surfing, living with adults she hardly knew and sneaking into bars with her mother’s stolen ID. She lived with a boyfriend for a year, breaking up with him two weeks before learning she was pregnant.

“I was so scared,” she said. She called her friend to ask if she could stay with her until she figured something out. “I came here, to this house, and started looking online for programs to help single moms,” she said.

Shepherd Godparent Home accepted her quickly—a pregnant 17-year-old “deep into drugs and failing high school.”

“They helped me stay sober and quit smoking cigarettes,” Mackala said. “They got me counseling, and I took patience and anger management classes.

She had private rides to and from school and OB-GYN appointments, and staff worked with her high school to keep her pregnancy private. They learned that she had been a cook (“under the table”) and was taking a vocational cooking class.

“They got me a class as well, and I practiced cooking for the other girls,” she said. “They taught me how to knit and crochet, how to put diapers on a baby, how to swaddle and hold it different ways. I also went to church, which helped me find myself. “

Church members took an interest in her well-being, invited her talk with them, and offered to pray for her.

“That was the first time I felt I could open up,” she said. “It helped redirect my anger and irritability.”

After graduating high school with “all As and a B,” she soon was homeless again, moving with her young son to a domestic violence shelter. Three years ago, she had her second son with a different father. After another domestic violence incident, her friend’s parents invited her to stay with them.

Godparent Home had taught her about finances and saving for the future, which came in handy when the couple said she could start buying the home from them and told her what would work as a mortgage. For Christmas a year ago, she asked if they would adopt her, and that process is in the works.

“My goal is to oil a floor or paint a wall—do something to make this house beautiful—each day until my last day, so my children have my affection, hard work, and commitment to look back on,” Mackala said.

She attributes her arthritis to pushing herself too hard from a young age.

“Godparent Home changed my life. It saved my life.”

“I want them to learn differently than I did about working for something they want,” she said.

One phrase that she wants to erase from her vocabulary is “Oh, I’m used to it.” Instead, she wants to substitute, “I’ll do better than this,” or “I know it will get better,” she said.

And things are better. Her current relationship of a year is with someone “quiet and collected.” She began working as a preschool teacher’s aide at a local YMCA daycare this past September. She’s in contact with her biological parents and brothers and “really good friends” with her oldest son’s father now.

She’s learned that it’s better to be homeless and safe than to be in her own place if it’s unsafe. “You can be homeless in your own home,” she said. “Living with domestic violence is a form of homelessness because when your home is no longer safe, it no longer feels like home.”

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Lisa Joy

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