From the streets to a place of one’s own
by Doug Bruns
Editor’s Note: Last May, we published “Cornered: Portraits of Portland’s Traffic Panhandlers,” by local writer and photographer Doug Bruns. This winter, Bruns completed a similar assignment, this one focused on formerly homeless people who have made the transition to housing with the help of local social-service agencies. (One of the subjects of “Cornered,” Judy, also appears here.) “Thank you to Amy Gallant and the other good folks at Preble Street for their assistance in pulling this story together,” said Bruns. “Their tireless work on behalf of our less-fortunate neighbors enriches our community and serves us all to the positive.”
eight years homeless; two years in housing
Having a roof over my head means I don’t have to be in the street anymore. That gives me peace of mind. God knows what I’d do if I was homeless again. I became homeless when my mother was put in a nursing home. I believe she’s still alive. She’s 101 years old. I was working for a car dealership when I had my stroke in 2007 and couldn’t work, and she was in the home. That’s how it happened, homelessness.… Homelessness sucks. Nobody should be living on the street. I fell and broke my shoulder and was taken to the hospital. There, somebody filled out paperwork, and then I came here [Logan Place, an affordable housing complex, supported by Avesta Housing and Preble Street, located in Libbytown near one of the interstate off-ramps]. The best thing about living here is having a bed and a shower.
two years and two months homeless; four-and-a-half months in housing
It’s really, really difficult to be homeless. It’s like a full-time job…. All I needed was a chance. I’m disabled. Because I was homeless over two years and I could prove it, and the fact that I am disabled, I got one of the 20 vouchers for housing. The sequestration of Section 8 vouchers kind of hurt us. They had 40, but pulled back 20. I got lucky and got one of those 20 and found a place…. The lack of affordable housing is really a problem. The lack of livable wages is really a problem. Back in the ’80s, with deinstitution, the mentally ill — and that’s my disability — were left on the street and living in the bushes…. Keep trying — that’s my advice to the people on the streets. I’m not going to say it’s doable, ’cause it’s really tough. Even with my disability, I made a deal with myself. I said, “Everyday, you’ve got to do something towards the future.” Who can I talk to? What can I be doing?… If I could put in a plug for the people who helped me when I was on the street: Thank you. I couldn’t have made it without your help.
four years homeless; six-and-a-half months in housing
I was a terrible alcoholic before I became sober. For 35 years, I drank. I almost died from drinking alcohol. One day I woke up at four in the morning — four in the morning is an interesting time — and knew that I had to leave where I was. I was with two lady friends. They were alcoholics. Out of my mouth, I said to myself, You need to leave here now. I left where I was, but collapsed on the lawn and went to the hospital. I believed I was going to die…. I was on a different path after that. I knew it was different — it was a spiritual path. I don’t know why I felt that way, it just was. I lost my depression and I lost my anxiety. I believe God saved my life for a reason. When you believe you’re going to die, everything changes…. I consider my case worker my muse. Her name is Jamie. She was my case worker for 10 years. She was my guide. She pushed me forward…. You have to gravitate to people who are positive, stay away from the negative. You have to have faith. I’m a man of faith…. There is hope. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel…. I pray for my mind to be expanded. I pray to help people. If you can’t help, at least don’t hurt them.
eighteen years homeless; nine years in housing
Peggy at Preble Street got me off the street. I don’t know what I’d do if that hadn’t happened…. I’m not going to die on the street. I’m going to die right there, right on that bed. I’ve got too many years left, I can feel it…. The best thing is that I’ve got a place to go when there’s no shelter available. The shelters are too crowded. You get there at five at night and hope they have a bed. If not, I’d find a hallway someplace to sleep…. I got my cat four years ago, maybe three. He’s my buddy. His name is Casper, but we call him Porker…. The best part of having a roof over my head is my bed. I have a place to sleep. Tell the homeless people that if they can get a place, to do everything they can to keep it. Don’t let your buddies screw it up. Make it last till the last picture show.
one year homeless; housing “a life-long effort”
I’m trying to reinvent my life. I’m in a situation where I’m trying to figure out what my life is about…. No one ever told me how to become an adult, how to deal with myself. You know, becoming an adult, and people are asking if you’re going to go to college and all that. I was really scared of all that. I went into adulthood from a place that was not a place of strength. I made bad decisions as a result…. I was an abused woman. I was sleeping in my car…. We all have stories. We all think we’re OK. But there are things we push to the back of our minds…. For people on the street, things become acute. I was in some strange mental place. How can you live in a dangerous place and think you’re going to be OK? It became very acute for me very quickly. My decision-making process was not very sound at the time…. God is love and He wants us to have food and shelter and enjoyment. But you still have to desire it and ask for it and want it. You have to work on having a frame of mind that will support that. You have to work on being positive.
four years homeless; two years in housing
I lost my MaineCare. I’m a diabetic. My foot’s infected. I’m scared I’ll lose my foot. I’m scared in general. I’ve never lived on my own…. I was in the shelter and the staff knew about my health problems. They saw my need and pressed for me to get an apartment. The workers here [Florence House, another Avesta/Preble Street project, located in the St. John/Valley Street neighborhood) are tremendous. They’re caring. They’re great people. I love them…. My father died in 2007. He told me two weeks before he died to keep the family together. My brothers live in a nice house with four bedrooms. My middle brother knew I was in a shelter at the time. But there is no communication. My advice to everyone is, if you have family and one of them is in trouble, try to contact them. Let them know you will help them…. Sometimes in the middle of the night I go outside and just sit on the bench and listen to the night, to Mother Nature. You have to hold on to whatever you can.
Doug Bruns is a writer and photographer in Portland. His website is dougbruns.com.