Part I of II
Thirty years ago, Kathleen Hirsch’s book Songs from the Alley gave a street-level look into the lives of two homeless women representing a population it is easy to feel far removed from. Among the book’s favorable reviews, one noted the author’s “most impressive accomplishment in reducing the measure of distance we feel when passing the homeless in the street.”
On a late summer afternoon in 2020, an unusually high number of homeless people in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park spurred this author’s desire to reduce that measure of distance again. In this two-part series, four Maine women share their stories of struggle, determination, resilience—and the invaluable help they received along the way.
|In the United States in 2019 . . . |
Women comprised 29 percent of homeless individuals
Women and families comprised the two fastest growing groups of homeless
Families with children comprised 34 percent of the homeless population
Women headed 67 percent of homeless families
In Maine in 2019 . . .
2,106 were homeless on a given night
Women comprised the highest percentage (38%) of any state’s homeless women population
Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness
In Maine as of November 23, 2020 . . .
87,000 households didn’t have enough to eat the previous week
33,000 households were behind on rent
Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Misty, 45, worked almost 30 years in York County food establishments before the cumulative effects of poorly treated health issues forced her to relocate to Portland, to find a bed in its shelter system.
“I had never not worked until I couldn’t anymore because of my health. I tried to go back, but my health would not allow it,” she said.
From dish washer to kitchen operations and prep cook, Misty enjoyed years of “working hard to play hard,” always assuming that a normal retirement lay ahead. Instead she was overtaken by factors common to homeless women: sustained low wages, a lack of benefits, and a significant change in her home life. When her 15-year partnership ended, Misty lost her apartment and could no longer meet the costs of her basic health and human needs.
“The working poor is the working poor, and that’s exactly what we are,” she said. “I couldn’t afford insulin and other medications, even though I was doing what the right thing was to do.”
She said that diabetes, severe neuropathy in her hands and feet, and other ailments have taken a lasting toll.
“I’m a liability to myself and any place I work for,” she said.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Misty moved to Kennebunk at the age of 12. She didn’t always live with family. Like other family members, however, she became a functional alcoholic.
“That’s not the reason I’m homeless, but it didn’t help,” she said.
Misty arrived at Florence House in 2016. The “low barrier” women’s shelter prohibits alcohol and drugs on premises but doesn’t require clients to be sober or “clean” to get one of its 42 beds.
“Just because we’re addicts doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a home,” said Misty, who has tried and eschews Alcoholics Anonymous.
She stayed at the shelter for over a year, returning in 2018 after a move into public housing with a roommate didn’t work out.
“There are people here that are so institutionalized, whether it was as children or adults, that they don’t know how to become un-institutionalized. The saddest are those who are dumped here without medication or guidance. They need a bed like I do, but without the help they need, they suffer,” she said.
So, she has read about their illnesses to help her understand more. And she’s been helped herself.
“If it weren’t for my former caseworker, who I love very dearly, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said.
Misty became a non-denominational ordained minister over a decade ago through an online resource.
“I did it to get over my fear of public speaking,” she said, “and to help friends that wanted to get married or needed advice.”
When Maine shut down last March due to the pandemic, the shelter walls closed in. Contact with caseworkers was limited to faxes for five months, and interactions with critical government agencies stalled.
“We survived the best we could,” said Misty. A lot of us couldn’t go out. . . We just had each other. We made it work. We had to.”
During this time, Misty’s people skills came in handy.
“We learned a lot about each other’s strengths and flaws and worked with them,” she said, although not everyone was receptive.
“That was fine. Stay your distance and I’ll stay mine. We were social distancing before it became a thing because you have to learn to do that here,” she said.
Misty ascribed Maine’s high rate of female homelessness to women like herself.
“It’s not that we don’t want to work,” she said, adding that the pandemic made it harder for women with children to work even part-time and maintain an apartment when day cares closed. She offered to watch a friend’s child, assist with moving, or just walk together with friends to the soup kitchen.
“We’re here to help each other. We come from different backgrounds, yet we’re all in the same boat because we’re here. So, let’s help each other row, and maybe things get a little bit brighter,” she said.
At press time, Misty had a voucher for a one-bedroom apartment. She was anxious about living alone given her health issues and planning to enroll in online “Street Academy” classes.
“I want to use some of my other skills now to make a difference,” she said, “to better myself and help others.”
For as long as she can remember, Brooke, 24, has lived by the adage, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” During the pandemic, successive losses of job, apartment, and her two-year-old daughter’s daycare took their toll, but her resilience and hard-won perspective saw her through. “You have to go through a long, bumpy road in life, jump over hurdles, and struggle. You have to push yourself further and further until you get where you want to be,” she said. “It’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible.”
From a young age, Brooke responded so emotionally to the physical and verbal abuse she experienced at home that she was placed in “group home after group home and hospitals.” She learned that acting out was a reliable way for her to be separated from the abuse.
“I would have a safe place, even if it was for ten days, so I was constantly trying to find a home that I wouldn’t be going back home from,” she said.
“Everything is an opportunity to learn something. There are facilities to help you, and people who are not only able to help you, but that want to help you.”
During middle school, Brooke was transferred to the Collaborative School in New Gloucester. It took time for her to build trust there. Initially, her capacity was “very thin.” Eventually she opened up about the trauma she’d experienced. She also learned how her anger looked to others and had opportunities to change that response.
As a high school senior, she advocated successfully to transfer to Lisbon High School in her hometown. “I wanted to show them how the [Collaborative] school had helped me, how my personality had changed, and how much I’d matured in those few years away from an abusive environment,” she said.
Brooke’s parents had divorced when she was in middle school. Several years later, her mother remarried.
“I call my stepfather my dad. He treats us kids like his own and has done so much for us. I’m so thankful for him,” she said.
During her senior year, Brooke had lived on her mother’s couch, but two years later, it had become too much, and they were fighting constantly.
“She’s a caring mom and wanted to do everything for me, but she had four kids and didn’t have an extra room. When she told me I had to go back with my real father, my friend and I packed our stuff and left,” Brooke said. Brooke graduated from high school in 2014.
While couch surfing and working full time, Brooke heard about New Beginnings, a shelter with programs for youth in Lewiston. In her initial interview, she was shown all types of Maine housing information and began applying immediately. She became a client the following week but slept in her car or at friends for roughly six months until she secured a subsidized apartment.
She used the shelter’s Outreach program for food and personal care products. She also met Sarah, a mentor and tutor, who would help her, in time, get several certifications. In addition to teaching her the benefits of yoga and meditation, Sarah told Brooke about the Dot Larrabee Fund, which provides vocational and educational financial aid for shelter clients.
“If I hadn’t had access to it, I wouldn’t be in nursing school right now. The fund helped me get certifications for Nursing Assistant (2017), Residential Medication Aid (2018), and Phlebotomy Technician (2019). Sarah and the fund will be in my head for the rest of my life,” Brooke said. She still has her mentor’s voicemail congratulating her on becoming a recipient.
Her mother bought her stethoscope, and the Larrabee fund took care of the rest of her CNA program needs, including scrubs and shoes.
In May of last year, Brooke was accepted into a two-year nursing program. She said she would never forget the day—August 17—that her online schoolwork began.
“I don’t usually believe that things happen for a reason,” Brooke said, “but last year, I lost my job, and my best friend reminded me that I had wanted to leave it anyway. Then I got a better-paying job at a better hospital. Within three months, I lost my apartment, then found one that’s a huge step up. I lost daycare for my daughter but found someone to help out in the way I want her to be raised. In 2020, things definitely happened for a reason,” she said.
And one more good thing happened. Brooke received a letter a week after she lost her apartment, letting her know that a voucher she qualified for five years earlier was still on file. “I’d forgotten about it,” she said, “but I was able to use it to get the bigger apartment and afford nursing school.”
Though Brooke’s mistrust of men remains, she attributes the hope she has for the future to all the supports she has received and to positive male role models. She still visits teachers at her middle and high schools.
“I know that one day I will find someone who treats me right,” she said. Meanwhile, she maintains that there is never a mistake in life.
“Everything is an opportunity to learn something. There are facilities to help you, and people who are not only able to help you, but that want to help you,” she said.