Life (and Death) in a Disorderly House
by Robin Rage
“There’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too / You can paddle all around them in a big canoe / In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
— Harry McClintock, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” circa 1895
I became officially, no-avenues-left homeless in the spring of 2012. To prove my housing status to the authorities, I spent a night or two at the city shelter on Oxford Street, but otherwise found alternate accommodations, including Old Man Ali’s floor [see “Sheep’s Head Soup,” July 2017], various squats [“Notes From a Cold Peninsula,” Feb. 2017] and the DMZ between West Commercial Street and the Fore River [“Sherwood Forest,” Nov. 2014] before Phineas and the Icelanders (good band name!) conquered and developed it.
The goal from the beginning of the ordeal was to get on The List — the list of homeless people waiting for a housing voucher — and then to get a voucher and secure housing from a landlord who accepted them. I remember calling the housing office at Shalom House, a nonprofit that assists the mentally ill, one cold and rainy day in the fall of 2012, and asking the woman who answered if she could tell me where my name was on The List. I’d been waiting for several months at that point, and was living at the time in a sketchy squat on upper Congress with Kosmo, Mr. Nixon and my dog, Bella. She replied that she couldn’t tell me that; she could only confirm whether or not I was on The List.
“Is there really a list?” I asked in exasperation. (She could also confirm that The List existed.)
In August of 2013 I was splitting my time between Sherwood Forest and my girlfriend Rose Elizabeth’s West End flat when I got the Golden Ticket: a housing voucher. It was issued through Maine’s Bridging Rental Assistance Program, or BRAP, which sounds like an onomatopoetic word for flatulence.
BRAP recipients pay 51 percent of their “income” on rent, and the government picks up the rest. Granted, the federal government’s own housing researchers consider spending 30 percent of one’s income on rent the upper limit of “affordability,” and after child-support payments and fines were subtracted, I didn’t know if I’d have enough dough to cover half the nut. But none of that mattered: I was finally going to be off the streets!
Well, not so fast. I was given a list of local landlords who accepted vouchers, I signed up with Avesta and another housing agency or two, and I started making calls and filling out applications. Nothing panned out, and I even lost money in the process on non-refundable application fees. I got a 30-day extension, then a second extension, followed by a third and final extension. Still nothing. I couldn’t believe it! Had I waited a year and a half for a voucher only to be unable to find a place to use it?
I was bumbling around the Preble Street Resource Center one day when I ran into Rocket, a friend of mine from the hip little Saturday morning N.A. meetings held at the Unitarian church downtown. Rocket was a woman in her late forties who’d run the streets for a long time before getting into recovery. (She’d had an encounter with Old Man Ali, long before I met him, that involved her holding his two cell phones hostage until he paid her for “services” rendered.) I told Rocket my problem.
“Hold on,” she said, then took out her phone, tapped out some digits, and the call was answered. “Yeah, Clark, it’s Rocket. … Yeah, I was wondering if you had any apartments available. I got a real good friend of mine here with — what have you got?”
“BRAP,” I said, imagining the response on the other end of the line (Eeeeew!).
“He’s got BRAP. … He’s a real nice guy. I’ve known him for a while. … Here,” she said, and handed me the phone. Clark told me to come over the next afternoon, to the corner of East Oxford and Anderson streets, in Bayside.
A stocky fellow in late middle age, Clark was wearing a baseball cap over his graying reddish hair and a bright yellow reflective vest like the ones worn by flaggers on road crews. Clark was friendly, but I was still apprehensive, waiting for him to present an application and demand another fee. He did neither. Instead he told me to go to the East Bayside cop shop (community policing center) so they could run my rap sheet. Clark sighed and told me, apologetically, that one of the two buildings he owned on the block, 31 East Oxford St., generated more police calls than any other property in Portland. He said it’d gotten to the point where the city was fining him every time the police showed up.
Clark just wanted to make sure I wasn’t a drug dealer, a murderer or a pimp. As the cops at the shop confirmed, I was none of those things. I agreed to rent the apartment on the second floor of Clark’s other building, at 32 East Oxford, without even stepping inside.
Clark let me move in immediately, even before the required housing inspection, so I grabbed my beat-up backpack and my battered guitar, and Bella and I entered our new home. The pad was empty and grungy, like a squat where you didn’t have to duck below the windowsills, but it had heat, a bathtub, French doors and a fancy light fixture that looked to me like a chandelier. We didn’t have a bed or any blankets, but I found some old curtains in the closet, and Bella and I curled up on the floor. I slept fully dressed, as had become my habit.
The next morning I woke up in my own home for the first time since 2007, when I moved in with the Whore. I’d spent the past six years in county jail, state prison, the insane asylum, and on the streets. Now, thanks to Clark Stephens and his unorthodox rental practices, I was housed again.
The deep gratitude I felt then, and still feel today, made it all the more shocking when I read a series of articles in the daily paper this summer portraying Clark as Public Enemy No. 1, a slumlord whose negligence had caused chaos in the neighborhood and possibly even contributed to a tenant’s death.
Ups and Downs
“Coleman, I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me, and it was all because of this terrible, awful negro.”
— Louis Winthorpe III, Trading Places, 1983
The high number of police calls to 31 East Oxford prompted city officials to officially designate the property a “disorderly house” last spring. Clark had been compelled, by court order, to hire a management company to oversee the three-unit building, among other measures intended to keep the peace. When he failed to do so, the city condemned the building in June, effectively forcing all the tenants to move out, the Portland Press Herald reported.
It seems Clark was less than forthcoming about his connection to the properties when Herald reporter Randy Billings and a photographer encountered him in the neighborhood. Billings wrote that Clark was subsequently “identified” by the paper “using a police mug shot from a 2016 arrest in Scarborough.”
That also struck me as odd, because Clark had told me back in 2013 that he worked for the Press Herald. “Stephens, who has a criminal record dating back to 1993 for theft, unemployment fraud and cruelty to animals, did not respond to requests for comment,” Billings wrote in a June 26 article.
Cruelty to animals? When I’d asked Clark about getting a cat to keep Bella company in the apartment, he told me his girlfriend, Dee Dee, was raising a small army of unfixed cats at a property he owned on Spring Street. He waited until Dee Dee went down to Rockin’ Rickey’s Tavern, then grabbed two kittens and brought them to us at East Oxford. Mrs. Haversham and Josephine Tangerine were more than welcome to live in Clark’s building.
Yes, there were a lot of disturbances that brought cops to the block on a regular basis. I recall remarking to one officer, “Why don’t y’all just drive by every fifteen minutes? There’s always something going on.”
Rose Elizabeth came to live with us not long after Bella and I moved in. On her first day there, we looked out the front window and saw a kid on a bike ride past our apartment screaming and swinging a machete. Rose Elizabeth was aghast. My response: “I love this neighborhood!”
You see, when you’ve been on the streets for more than a few weeks, you’re willing to accept a lot of things that apartment dwellers who’ve always been plugged into the Matrix find unacceptable. Staying in the West End after living in the woods, I always felt out of place, but here, at the corner of East Oxford and Anderson, I could relate to my neighbors.
And another thing: Just being inside a home won’t change your homeless ways. I slept fully clothed for weeks after moving into Clark’s building. When I left the apartment to wander the streets and reconnect with the community I knew, I still shouldered a backpack loaded with survival gear, and I took Bella along even when I didn’t need to. I mistrusted anyone who hadn’t been “tested” by life on the street or some similar trial by fire.
In my new neighborhood, it seemed like everyone had been burned.
Two of the first people I met on East Oxford were gentlemen who lived on the third floor of the building across the street. Dave was an older fellow and a veteran; Cap’n Kev was an animated guy in his 40s who knew Clark from way back, when Kev owned a successful auto-body repair shop. When things went south for Cap’n Kev and he had no place to live, Clark moved him into one of the closet-sized rooms at 31 East Oxford. To help earn their keep, Dave and Kev did odd jobs at my building, painting and getting the place into shape before inspectors arrived. I recall how the fellas would get edgy in the mornings until 10:30: “Beer-thirty!” Cap’n Kev called it. That’s when Clark would show up to drop off a couple Natty Daddys and some cheap smokes.
The place passed inspection every time.
I had some stable neighbors, too. Downstairs was J.B., a painter, who lived with his partner Kate, a certified nursing assistant, and their three kids. They had dibs on whatever part of the driveway wasn’t occupied by Clark’s immobile El Camino (blown engine; what a shame) and his monster truck. My upstairs neighbors were Helen and Tony Sanborn, the parents of Anthony Sanborn, whose conviction for the 1989 murder of a teenager on the waterfront is now being reviewed while he’s out on bail. They’ve lived there for three decades, and still do to this day.
When I first got my voucher, I told friends I wanted a landlord who was like a cat — which is to say, one who didn’t give a fuck. Clark gave a fuck. He was there every day, prowling around the buildings with his reflective vest on, fixing this and that. On at least two occasions while I lived there, the city cited Clark for the excessive amount of junk cluttering the long, narrow side yard at 31. Clark would barrel up the trash and sometimes I’d help him wheel it down the street a few blocks to someone’s dumpsters. But eventually, inevitably, the refuse would return, materializing as though out of thin air. The neighborhood itself generated a lot of problems. It was way more than one landlord could ever handle — like pouring water into the proverbial leaky bucket, or maintaining an aquarium full of Wal-Mart fish.
That said, Clark’s not a candidate for Landlord of the Year.
He repeatedly promised to get the lock on the downstairs door fixed, but it never happened. The previous occupant of my apartment apparently sold quite a bit of crack. As a result, during the first two or three weeks I lived there, wild-eyed strangers would knock on the door to my apartment at all hours. A few even climbed the fire escape and tapped on the cracked window, looking for “up.”
I had to kick people out of the downstairs hallway more than a few times. I complained to Clark once about the crackheads, and about one guy in particular. Soon after that, Cap’n Kev came over to tell me that by bringing this particular crackhead to Clark’s attention, I’d pissed off an entire gang of Asian drug dealers who called themselves The X-men and occupied the second floor of 31. Kev assured me he’d smoothed things over, but warned me to be extra careful around the neighborhood.
I never had any trouble on the block. The X-men split not long after that incident, and a roofer and his family moved in on the first floor. Most of the calls to that address were the result of peeps who didn’t live there getting rowdy in the street.
Clark took in more than his share of alcoholics who couldn’t hang onto housing anywhere else, but it seemed like there were always at least one or two characters across the street selling “up” or “down,” which often resulted in customers passing out or getting it on in the hallways. Clark was finally forced to fix the front door of 31. He tried to make the residents lock that door at 10 p.m. and he posted “no loitering” signs, but nothing really changed. If a frequent visitor caused too much trouble, Clark would ban them from the property, but he’d eventually either soften up, forget his prior directive, or forgive whatever transgression had inspired him to issue it in the first place.
There were beautiful times on East Oxford Street, too. At its western end, where it meets Boyd Street, there’s a community garden. With Clark’s permission and some donated seedlings left on the Boyd Street sidewalk, I was able to grow a pretty good little garden at 32 that first summer. Rose Elizabeth used to dance in the streets with the kids from the housing project nearby. On Sunday mornings, we walked a couple blocks to attend church inside the stunning Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
I’d heard a thing or two about the subsidized housing scene before I moved into 32, so I should have been prepared for what happened. The properties were like halfway houses, or minimum-security Canadian prisons. There were frequent, often unannounced inspections to ensure tenants followed the rules. I knew a bunch of people who’d lost their housing due to smoking, drinking, drugging, or the most common cause of eviction for those of us freshly off the street: too many homeless people sleeping on your floor.
I lasted two years at 32 East Oxford. While Rose Elizabeth was living there, we never had anyone over. When she left, that changed, and over time the crowd got sicker and sicker. Kosmo and CeCe camped on my floor for weeks. That’s when my spoons started disappearing, and when they turned up again they were blotched with soot. I caught the old booze bug myself and went into detox for a spell.
Clark was always good-natured, always as understanding as he could be about the noise complaints and the blatant over-occupancy. When he finally decided to evict me, he was very apologetic about it. He gave me an extra month to leave, and then told me I could stay a month longer than that if necessary. “Just don’t let Helen know!” Wink, wink!
It all worked out fine. I moved to Freeport, of all places — a town I never could’ve handled coming right off the street. When I read about Clark in the paper this summer, it was my turn to go back to the old neighborhood to check on him, to make sure he was doing OK.
“What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended for them to do.”
— Dorothy Day
At first I tried to call Clark, but that never worked in the past and it didn’t now. I did reach Helen Sanborn by phone, but aside from some general reminiscing and her denials that she ever complained about me behind my back, she couldn’t shed much light on the situation.
When I got to Bayside, the old block looked much the same as it always had, but it was a lot quieter. The characters, Clark included, who were always making merry on the street were nowhere to be seen or heard.
The side yard at 31 was full of junk again. When I started to walk into it, a voice called out from across the street: “Get out of that alley!” It was a woman yelling from the window of my old apartment. I crossed East Oxford to talk to her, but then my old downstairs neighbor, J.B., stuck his head out of his window. We only had a moment to chat when Clark pulled up in a rental car.
He greeted me warmly, and after some pleasantries I asked him about the latest articles in the Press Herald. He’d been a central figure in two separate stories that Monday: one about the forced sale of 31 East Oxford; the other, a much more morbid tale. Headlined “Evicted without cause and forced to live in shabby room, Portland woman dies alone,” the article, by Billings, concerned 56-year-old Margaret “Maggie” Peters, a resident of 31 who’d been informed in June that she’d have to vacate the condemned property, but was found dead in her apartment on July 7, apparently of natural causes.
Three articles in three weeks, all of which cast Clark as a villain. Clark told me he’d worked for the Press Herald for 15 years, repairing press equipment, until he was sidelined by a heart attack in 2015. There was more to the story, he said, but he didn’t have time to tell it right then. We made plans to meet up in two days, but when I returned to East Oxford at the appointed time, he was nowhere to be found.
Bollard editor Chris Busby was with me, and we poked around the properties for a few minutes, taking photos. We discovered a sleeping bag and a throw pillow among the sad detritus behind 31, and were getting ready to leave when Clark emerged from the front door of 32. “Clark!” I exclaimed, but he shushed me with a mischievous Santa grin, like he didn’t want the neighbors to know he was living there. His ball cap bore the logo of Maine Home + Design, which amused my editor considerably.
Clark sat on the front steps and amiably answered my questions.
Theft? “Well, that was back in ’93, when I took some rice and a tub of butter from Super Shaw’s the first day they opened, and I got caught!”
Animal cruelty? Brandy, Dee Dee’s dog, had kicked over her water bowl one summer day and her barking must’ve drawn a police complaint. “So the cops came and found a dog on a hot day with no water, and I got charged with animal cruelty.”
“Where’d the mug shot that ran in the paper come from, Clark?”
“Oh, I got stopped driving my [monster] truck in Scarborough and got charged for driving an unsafe vehicle.”
Clark suspects the honchos at the Herald are making an example of him because they have a history. After the heart attack a couple years ago, he returned to the paper’s South Portland printing facility just as Reade Brower was buying MaineToday Media from hedge-fund billionaire Donald Sussman. (Sussman, ironically, is a bit of a slumlord himself, having allowed numerous buildings he owned, located a few blocks away from Clark’s, to remain vacant and dumpy for several years; see “Donald Sussman’s Dumps,” Jan. 2012.) Clark lost his job after the transition to Brower’s ownership, but there’s a dispute involving union rights and how those rights were affected by the sale. Long story short: Clark and another ex-employee have filed a civil complaint against the paper with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which is investigating the matter, he said. Reporters like Billings don’t mingle much with the ink monkeys who run the presses, but Clark finds it hard to believe that upper management needed a mug shot to figure out who he was.
“When a lawsuit like this happens against a company like this, it spreads like wildfire, and everybody in the company knows who it is,” Clark said. “They gotta be pissed at me.”
In fairness to the Herald, a dead body found in a condemned building is front-page news, and the city’s apparently unprecedented legal action to force Clark to sell 31 East Oxford also warrants coverage. Anyway, Clark isn’t too bothered to lose that property. He reasons that its sale and eventual improvement under new ownership will increase the value of 32, which is already rising as investors snatch up the last cheap multi-family buildings on the peninsula, most of which are in this long-blighted neighborhood.
A car pulled into the driveway and Clark had to attend to business, but before we parted he remarked on Brower’s latest acquisition. “Did you hear they’re buying the Sun Journal, too? And I was thinking about getting my [employment dispute] story in there!”
‘Don’t worry,” Busby quipped. “They’ll never buy The Bollard.”