Portraits of Portland’s traffic panhandlers
text and photography by Doug Bruns
Dana, 50, from Chicago
Intersection: Franklin Street & Marginal Way
I asked Dana about life on the street. “I get discouraged, but I don’t stay there,” he said. “I’m desperate. I’m 50, and this is what I’m doing. It’s the economy. It’s tough on everyone. It’s worldwide. But it won’t always stay this way.” He has a warm smile and friendly brown eyes. “I’m lucky I don’t have children,” he said. I asked him how he got into this situation. “This is life,” he said, philosophically, making an expansive gesture. “So many ways a person can go wrong and screw up. My problem? Not a great structure growing up. They did as good as they could, but it wasn’t the best. It’s not like I’m lazy or on drugs. I’m passionate about that, about life. I’m just going through some hard times.” How do the drivers respond to his panhandling? “One guy this morning threw 16 cent at me and drove off. Sixteen cent! I picked it up. It might be just the 16 cent I need.” Dana said people usually give a dollar, if anything. “Most people are warm, been good to me.” He loves to read, and said he frequents the library on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. “I’m a bookworm. I love to improve myself. I want to be a writer.”
Steven, 28, from Massachusetts
Intersection: St. John Street and Park Avenue
What brought Steven to Portland? “I’m here for my child,” he said. “I came with friends, but they ended up not being real friends.” He said his daughter is 16 months old and he doesn’t get along with her mother. “I’m out here trying to provide for my kid.” Steven told me he lives in a tent and has been trying to make enough money to buy a tarp before the spring rains arrive, but his ultimate goal is real housing: “It’s my big dream to get a place.” He said that when he turned 18, social services in Massachusetts turned him out onto the streets. “I used to work at convenience stores, stuff like that. This is what I do now.” Whatever the future holds, Steven said he’ll never forget where he came from. “I’ll always remember that I came from the streets. But believe me, I don’t want to be doing this. It’s embarrassing. It’s hard. I’m just trying to figure out how to get out of this situation.”
Judy, 48, from Pensacola, Florida
Intersection: St. John Street and Congress Street
“I lost my job in Pensacola,” Judy told me, so she and her boyfriend traveled to North Dakota. “There’s an oil boom there now, but they outlawed tenting, so we came to Maine because I heard there are programs here, and my boyfriend had been here before.” She said she’s been in Portland since June, “but there’s no housing. It used to be that if you wanted a job you could find one. Not now.” She pointed to a panhandler on the opposite corner. “Seems that most of the people out here, homeless people, are in my age group. We’re the lost generation. We’re not up on technology. And the family unit has changed. It used to be if you got into trouble, you called home.” Judy said she hopes to get on the list for subsidized housing, but is worried it could be six months or a year in coming. “It’s $160 [per month] for shared housing, but I have a DUI and a charge of domestic violence, and I might get denied.” She said she doesn’t interact with the drivers who stop next to her. “I don’t talk to the people if they don’t talk to me. I don’t want to put people on the spot by asking for money. It’s bad enough they have to see me here. But I have no options.”
Waupoose, “The Rabbit,” 49, from Wisconsin
Intersection: Park Avenue and State Street
Waupoose said he’s a full-blood Menominee Indian who was adopted off the reservation at age six. “We — my brothers and sister, five of us — were left in a warehouse when we were just kids.” I asked what happened. He looked at the ground and I noticed his jaw was trembling. “Our parents, they just left us there. They wanted to go drinking.” He said the family never reunited. Then he breathed deeply and pursed his lips. “I’ve been here a year and a half.” Waupoose told me his wife was a travel nurse and her work brought them to Boothbay. “She left me, though.” He said he got some construction work, but broke his leg on a job site. “Then, last winter, I broke my other leg crossing the street right there.” He pointed his cane at the curb. “MaineCare took care of me. Then I lost my ID when my wallet was stolen. It’s hard when you lose your ID and you don’t have a mailing address.” He said the drivers treat him well. “They give me food, a couple of bucks here and there. They’re always good to me.” He was shivering. It was a cold, wet morning. “I get up at five o’clock. It’s like, man …” and his voice drifted off.
Galen, 41, from Bridgton
Intersection: Forest Avenue and Marginal Way
Galen held a handmade sign that said he’s looking for work and included his phone number. “What bothers me is people saying they’ll give me work, then disappearing. One guy gave me his number and told me to call, that he had work. I’ve called and called and he won’t call me back. I’d work for five dollars an hour, eighty hours a week, if I could just find a fucking job. I’ll do what it takes. I just want to work.” Galen told me he’d had a landscaping and handyman business in Bridgton. “I had 110 customers,” he proudly said. Then his marriage fell apart and so did his business. That was four years ago. “I’ve filled out a thousand applications. I don’t understand why I never get called. Everybody says there are jobs out there, but most of them are for young people.” A van zoomed by and a beefy man inside shouted, “Get a job!” Galen turned to me and smiled. “I don’t let that bother me.” He said the streets are turning for the worse. “The drugs are getting wicked bad out here. It’s hard. And the young people are getting dangerous.” As I walked away, he told me to have a good day. He waved. He had a nice smile.
Doug Bruns is a writer and photographer in Portland. His website is dougbruns.com.