[Hpn] Out in the cold

Harmony Foster Kieding fosterharmony@savethisplanet.com
Mon, 19 Feb 2001 10:01:47 -0800

I came across this article while browsing through another hpn post. (Hope it
isn't too big a file size here for posting...)

Bangor Daily News Article

Monday, Feb.19,2001
By Jeff Tuttle, Of the NEWS Staff
Saturday, February 17,2001

Out in the cold
By Jeff Tuttle, Of the NEWS Staff

The large snowflakes dropping outside Bangor’s public library on this day come
as a welcome sight to one tired, homeless man there.

“That means it’s not as cold as it could be,” said the almost thankful 43-year-old
as darkness, too, begins to fall on the downtown streets he has called home
for nearly three years. 

The man, who did not want to be identified, is among the estimated 1,000 to
1,200 homeless people each night in the state, where officials are joining a
national crusade to end the growing trend within 10 years. 

Toward that end, members of the Maine Coalition for the Homeless will arrive
at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday after earlier this month launching
a petition drive to gather 50,000 signatures by April in support of a plan to
end homelessness in the state by 2006.

“We believe that it’s unacceptable that human beings have to be homeless, and
that Maine is able to address and correct the problem,” said Brother Francis
Blouin, vice president of the Portland-based coalition.

Not just wishful thinking, Blouin insists, the proposal outlines a number of
specific steps, the first of which is support of a bill submitted to the Legislature
this session that would put a $20 million bond issue on next

November’s ballot to provide more low-income housing.

The shortage of affordable housing has plagued Maine’s major cities in recent
months, and the money is expected to add between 275 and 300 much-needed units
statewide, Blouin said.

But more housing probably won’t matter much to the man in the library. 

On a recent January afternoon, he reads the Boston Globe in his regular spot
downstairs amid the popular fiction, quietly telling his story while a few curious
library patrons occasionally throw a glance his way as they walk up and down
the aisles. 

The previous night, he slept for only two hours on the ground in a downtown
alleyway as temperatures dropped well below zero and his multiple layers of
clothing failed to keep out the whipping winds.

The rest of the night, he shuffled around the city in his worn tennis shoes
trying to keep warm, looking in the garbage for clothing — especially boots
— and empty cans and bottles — his only source of income. 

“Sitting here, I’m still cold,” said the man, who even though in the relative
warmth of the library is still clad in two winter hats, two pair of pants, a
turtleneck, a sweat shirt and several other layers. “Sometimes I feel disheartened
that I have such a bare existence, where everything revolves around putting
food in your belly.”

Today he didn’t eat, and didn’t expect to. Yesterday the strict vegetarian used
24 empty cans to buy a bag of generic-brand Puffed Wheat. There was no milk
to go with it — “way too extravagant,” he said.

Tired of accusations that he is a drain on taxpayers, he won’t apply for federal
or state assistance despite being diagnosed with depression, he said. He won
t ask for — or accept — money, clothing or food. Last winter, he wouldn’t use
a sleeping bag that mysteriously appeared near the rear of a downtown parking
garage he was known to frequent.

He won’t go back to a shelter or stay in an abandoned building. He won’t eat
at any of the area’s soup kitchens — “loony bins,” he calls them. 

At night, he keeps moving.

“It’s not pride, it’s fear,” said the man, who has lived outside since the Ice
Storm of 1998 save for a few nights at area hospitals and the 18 days last January
after police took him to the Bangor Mental Health Institute for a psychological
evaluation. “Once you’re in the system or you let someone give you something,
they feel like they own you, and you owe them something.” 

The shelter solution 

Compared to the majority of the state’s chronic homeless population, in many
ways the man in the library is a rarity: sober (alcohol hurts his stomach),
a local (a Brewer High School graduate) and a self-described “full timer,” who
sleeps outside regardless of the weather.

Those who sleep outside, under bridges or in abandoned buildings are thought
to make up less than 10 percent of the nation’s homeless population, estimated
at 750,000 people on any given night, according to statistics from the Washington,
D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

The alliance, which recently released its own plan to end homelessness by 2010,
estimates that as many as 2 million people are without a place to live at some
time during the year.

In Maine, that number is between 10,000 and 12,000, according to the Maine State
Housing Authority. The agency oversees the state’s 39 emergency homeless shelters,
which house about 600 people each night.

Curtis, a 20-year-old from Winterport, was one of the 600.

Until mid-November, he slept in the woods outside a friend’s house in Hampden.
When the nights turned cold, however, he sought a warm bed at the Bangor Area
Homeless Shelter, where on a typical winter night about two dozen people, mostly
men, take refuge from the cold.

He said he had no intention of staying outside.

“I know some people think they’re free,” he said referring to the few who choose
to endure the winter nights rather than come inside. “That’s no way to live.”

Curtis is perhaps more typical of the state’s homeless population.

Like 37 percent of the homeless in Maine, he has a job — albeit working evenings
for about $125 a week at a local fast-food restaurant. Although he was unable
to afford to leave the shelter, Curtis, who has worked as a mechanic and a logger
among other odd jobs, is grateful for the chance to earn some money. 

“A lot of places, when you put down the corner of Main and Cedar, they won’t
even look at you,” said Curtis, referring to the address of the Bangor shelter.
“At some point, I’ll probably be looking for something else that pays a little
more, but this is OK for now.”

Before recently leaving the shelter, Curtis stayed there for about two months,
a long time for a place where the average stay is about a week. Because he had
a job and was saving his money to move into a friend’s apartment, he was allowed
to stay longer, he said.

Dennis Marble, a self-described “hard-nosed Irishman,” has been director of
the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter for nearly five years.

At his shelter, there’s no alcohol, no drugs, and no indication that a guest
has been using either one. And no exceptions. 

A member of the coalition, Marble has seen trends come and go at his downtown
adult shelter, just blocks from the Greyhound station.

One night a spate of elderly men and women use the beds. Another night, it’s
twentysomethings. Most nights, more than half — and sometimes more than 80 percent
— of his clients have some sort of mental illness, he said. About 20 percent
are transients, living in the city only for a short time before moving on. 

Like other experts, Marble knows the answer to the state’s homeless problem
is not in more emergency shelter beds. Last year, his shelter, which has 32
beds, had a 62 percent occupancy rate. But Marble is quick to say he will turn
away potential guests if he thinks their aggressive or unstable behaviors are
likely to disturb other, more fragile clients.

“There are plenty of beds in the city,” said Marble, who like many of his colleagues
cited a lack of affordable housing as one reason behind guests staying longer
and longer. “This isn’t a place for them to live. It’s a place for them to stay.”

For the past few years, the shelter has kept its doors open during the day as
well, serving hot lunches and providing a place for the shelter’s guests to
use the phone and make appointments to see counselors or look at apartments.

However, with one-time grant and foundation money running out, Marble said he
might again have to close the doors come summer unless he can secure funding
for the day program. 

“The Band-Aid has ripped,” said Marble, who is pursuing state money to keep
the program up and running in Maine’s third-largest city.

Bangor, the last major stop on the Greyhound bus route and home of the long-ago
downsized Bangor Mental Health Institute, has its fair share of homeless people
staying in shelters, about 18 percent of the state’s 1999 total.

For comparison, Portland shelters serve nearly half of the state’s homeless,
with Lewiston and Auburn only about 6 percent, according to statistics from
the Maine State Housing Authority.

But while the city and state’s total homeless population has increased only
marginally in the past five years, it’s the 48 percent rise in the number of
“bed nights” from 1997 to 2000 that alarms experts.

Bed nights is a term simply meaning the total number of emergency shelter beds
occupied each night.

“Now, it’s not so much the number of homeless, it’s the number of days they
are staying in shelters,” said Blouin, who also serves as vice president of
the Maine Council of Churches. “No one should be made to stay at an emergency
shelter because they can’t find or afford a place of their own. 

“The longer they stay [at a shelter] the more difficult it is to find a solution
for them,” he continued.

Looking for answers

While part of the solution is more subsidized housing, Blouin said, the coalition
has identified five other “manageable” causes of homelessness including poverty,
a lack of medical coverage for poor families and insufficient job training opportunities.

Two other major factors, which may be more difficult to address, are the increasing
numbers of mentally ill and drug- or alcohol-addicted homeless people, estimated
now to be nearly half of that population.

In each of the next five years, the coalition will look to address one of the
causes, Blouin said. 

State officials, too, have stepped up their efforts to curb the homeless problem,
with the Maine State Housing Authority reconfiguring its staff to include three
instead of one full-time agent dedicated to the issue.

Warren Cunningham, a senior program officer at the housing authority, said the
department also has looked to increase its interaction with state and local
agencies, including shelters. The agency, for the purposes of data collection,
has expanded its definition of homelessness to include those temporarily “doubling
up” with friends.

“Anyone serious about tackling the problem of homelessness can’t ignore the
‘couch surfers,’” Cunningham said, estimating that for every homeless person
in a shelter, another is on the street or sleeping at a friend’s house. “At
some point they’re going to need services or they’re going to be out on the

Youth make up the vast majority of “couch surfers,” officials say, and about
30 percent of the state’s homeless population.

Douglas Bouchard, director of the Shaw House in Bangor, said the cold winter
weather has actually — and not unexpectedly —brought a drop in the number of
homeless youth staying at his 16-bed shelter. 

“We’ve been working very hard to put these kids in a safe place other than the
shelter,” Bouchard said, adding that only five teen-agers stayed at the Hammond
Street building the night before. “The problem is they have more options now,
and not all of them good.”

Bouchard said the shelter’s outreach team has increased contact with homeless
youth this winter, but many are being lured into one of four or five flophouses
known to shelter staff where 15 or 20 teens stay in a one-bedroom apartment
during the cold winter months.

Contrary to popular belief, experts say winter actually brings a decrease in
the city’s shelter population, with many transients preferring to move to warmer
climates rather than come inside.

On the streets

Hal Haines, an outreach worker with the Department of Mental Health, Mental
Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, gradually tries to bring people inside.

But, there’s a dilemma.

“Does a schizophrenic man who wants to stay outside, and is dressed for the
weather, have a right to do that?” Haines asked. “I’m not sure. I just try to
give them options.”

Haines spends much of his time driving around the downtown and at the Bangor
area shelter gradually earning the trust of clients who often are wary. It often
takes several visits and many more shared cigarettes before Haines can make
any headway, he said.

If he’s lucky, he’s able to persuade the more resistant homeless to go to a
soup kitchen or maybe even apply for state assistance and get off the streets.

In their rounds, Bangor police also spend a lot of time on the streets looking
for people who need shelter. 

“Quite frankly, most of them are pretty harmless,” said Sgt. Ronald Gastia,
adding that the most common charges brought against the adult homeless population
are shoplifting — mostly alcohol — and perhaps criminal trespassing if found
in an empty building. “Most of the problems come when alcohol is involved, but
then it’s mostly harm to themselves.”

The teen-age homeless population is often a different story, Gastia said, with
common crimes including car burglaries and assaults.

Officer Paul Colley has spent years patrolling the downtown. He knows the homeless
people, and they know him. 

Colley said this winter has been typical, with police finding a few homeless
people, mainly alcoholics, mostly in abandoned or condemned buildings. 

“We keep an eye out,” Colley said. “Obviously in the winter, it’s a little more

In the summer, things are different, he said, with the number of people staying
outside swelling as the temperature rises. The favorite warm-weather haunts
include under the Veterans Remembrance Bridge, along the Kenduskeag Stream and
in an area called “the Pines” off Indiana Avenue near the Acadia Recovery Community,
which operates an emergency shelter there for people abusing drugs and alcohol.

This winter, eight or so makeshift campsites beneath the bridge sit unused,
covered in snow. 

There are no footprints going to the small, burned-out brick building nearby
along the railroad tracks. In tiny letters near the opening where there once
was a door are the words “Hobo Hotel” and “Vacancy.” 

The concrete floor inside the building is strewn with frozen blankets and clothing.
On the wall is a handwritten log of the last people to stay there. 

The man in the library won’t go anywhere near the area.

“Bad things happen under bridges,” he explains, citing the fate of another homeless
man, “Backpack Joe,” who ended up in the emergency room after being assaulted

For now, he’ll bide his time until spring and try to keep his mind on collecting
enough empty cans to buy groceries.

“I miss working. I miss my kids,” said the man, estranged from his wife and
three teen-agers who still live in the area. “But no matter how bad off people
think I am, there are other people who have it much worse than I do.”


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