Bangor Area Homeless Shelter Director Dennis Marble led Wilson and me to a room at the back of the shelter, so we could talk privately. It was lunchtime in the main room out front, and several people sat around the tables, chatting. One woman’s arms were decorated with tattoos, her hair in pigtails.
It wasn’t until after we started the interview that I fully realized Wilson and I were in a medical examination room. How appropriate, I thought, as Wilson explained to me the origins of his pain. He moved to the Bangor area about six years ago to be healed, in a way, arriving on his own after his spouse of 16 years died. With no family in his life, he said he wanted a new start.
Wilson’s story is an example of how the state’s safety net system is supposed to work for people who are homeless. You see, his story has a happy ending. But he and I know his situation is the exception. We know more people could be moved quickly out of shelters and into supportive housing, which has been shown to be effective — and affordable — in returning people to independent lives.
After Wilson moved to Bangor, he got a job as a cashier, which he held until last fall when his hours were cut. Then he was let go. He had been taking two classes a week at Eastern Maine Community College, trying to complete his prerequisites in history and algebra before attempting a degree in a medical technician field. He wanted to help heal people.
But with no income, he stopped going to school. He couldn’t pay his rent, and he lost his apartment. He had no close friends with whom he could live. At the age of 47, he was relatively healthy, employable and had never been without a home before. But in a short amount of time that became his label: homeless. More than anything, he said he was scared.
He didn’t have any savings, and an unemployment check took about six weeks to get. So in November he arrived at the shelter on Main Street. He said the people at the shelter gave him more than a place to stay. They gave him the belief that he could be self-sufficient again. They connected him with a career center, fed him three times a day and helped him navigate the available state resources.
“They’re kind of like my second family. They gave me support and knowledge that I would be getting back out on my own,” he said.
He was able to collect unemployment, and he qualified for the Stability Through Engagement Program (STEP), which is funded by the federal government and administered by the Maine State Housing Authority. It provides short-term rental assistance and is designed to lead people to self-sufficiency again. Over a period of about eight months, he applied for between 75 and 90 jobs. Though he had a few interviews, he was not hired.
But then his luck changed. Several weeks ago he had an interview. They asked for a follow-up. They did a background check. He waited. And then they told him: You have a job.
I’m not including details about Wilson’s employer because I don’t want to jeopardize his employment. I’m also not using his real name. When I asked Wilson when he starts work, he started to cry. He starts on Monday.
When I first arrived at the shelter, I thought Wilson was there as a resident. But he was there to volunteer. He’s done it regularly after he had to live there and helps in the kitchen and with lunch clean-up. Having to live in a shelter demoralizes you, he said, but he is grateful and wants to give back.
“If it wasn’t for being here and the assistance at the shelter, I don’t know where I would be,” he said. “The shelter — I look at it as a step to get where you need to be.”
It was his step to the next step of supportive housing, which provided some security and increased his odds of getting a job. He knows he was lucky to qualify for STEP, and, like most people who use the program, he has a good chance of achieving independence. One big problem, though, is that the state doesn’t have enough units of supportive or transitional housing to meet demand. It needs them.
“Sometimes all it takes is that little piece of help, just to get you through,” he said.
On the eve of his new employment, he’s looking at the beginning of a new life for himself. After all, getting a fresh start is what he wanted in the first place. He still wants to get a degree, but instead of becoming a medical technician, he’s thinking about becoming a counselor. He wants to restore others’ health and help them through their times of trouble.
Wilson is not done healing, but he’s focused in the right direction. He ended our conversation by saying something he wouldn’t have said just nine months ago: “For now, the future is looking bright.”