How to Lose Your Housing

The author in his apartment earlier this year. photo/John Duncan

The circumstances that cause so many recently housed people to lose their housing are complex, but they often boil down to one troublesome human instinct: empathy. The first rule for the once chronically homeless is “no bringing home strays.” But that simple rule can be hard to follow when compassion strikes.

I met Margarita (not her real name) in the early morning hours of Mother’s Day, May 13th. I’d been busking in the Old Port and was making my way home about an hour or so after the bars closed, walking past City Hall with my guitar slung over my shoulder. Someone called out to me. I figured it was someone I knew from my many years in and around the streets of Portland. 

Margarita wasn’t anyone I knew. She’s a Russian immigrant, and one of the most animated people I’ve ever encountered. She asked me to play for her. I played a song I’d written and then asked her if she’d seen my friend. He’d given me five dollars for a store run and now I couldn’t find him. When I described him, she said she thought he was someone who’d threatened to smash a guitar over her head. “That’s the guy,” I said. But she hadn’t seen him that night. 

Then she told me a bit about herself. She said she arrived in Portland two months prior to the 2020 lockdowns. She came because she had family here — her mother and daughter — but now they were fighting, and this inter-maternal turmoil had forced her to live on the streets, where she’d chosen “Shitty Hall” (as she calls it) as her refuge. The Russian said she never expected to see so many unsheltered people in “Vacationland.” 

Her decision to sleep at City Hall was intended to be symbolic. That appealed to me. I did the same sort of thing when I was homeless: sleeping directly across from the Avesta Housing office; sleeping under the sign of the Life is Good shop in the Old Port; sleeping in the doorway of Mensroom Salon, near Monument Square, where on Two for Tuesday the deal was “Bring a friend and receive two luxury cuts” for $50 (I really needed one). I even slept at Shitty Hall sometimes. 

She asked if I’d read the great Russian writers, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I told her I’d read both, but more Tolstoy, and had loosely modeled my book, Transience, after War and Peace, the original title of my memoir having been “Casualties of War and Peace.” Then I pulled the May edition of The Bollard from my backpack and showed her what I was talking about. I had the cover that month, and roughly 8,000 words, the conclusion of a years-long serialization of my years surviving the streets of Portland. She was impressed. 

Margarita phoned a friend in Israel and we talked via video for a considerable time. It was day there, and she walked us through the beautiful sunlit gardens around her house. Though I couldn’t follow much of the conversation, which was often in Russian, it made me feel more at ease, because Margarita didn’t seem to be alone. She had a working phone and friends who were glad to answer when she called. She also had family, with whom she’d only recently had a falling out. These were safe signs to me. 

By now the sun was peeking at us from the east. I had to get back to my one-bedroom apartment out at Woodfords Corner. Margarita had a visibly broken hand, her ankles were swollen like balloons, her hips were bruised from sleeping on bricks and stone, and her hands and nails were dirty. I didn’t want to invite her over — see Rule #1 — but I couldn’t leave her there. My conscience wouldn’t allow that. Along with the broken hand, her heart was broken — this being Mother’s Day and all. I felt compelled to bring her home. 

I helped load her many things into a grocery cart and pushed it all the way to my place. When we got there, I helped carry it all inside. In addition to clothes, hygiene products, cosmetics and other basics, there were books, rocks, railroad spikes, various tree barks, literal nine-inch nails, artwork and other miscellaneous items. 

We chatted for an hour or so, then I went to bed, inviting her to make herself at home: eat and drink what she wanted, wash up, elevate her ankles — whatever would comfort her. She’s very loud, and throughout that day I occasionally overheard her talking on the phone, but I can sleep through anything if I’m tired enough, and I was. After a few hours she came in and lay down beside me. I went into the kitchen, the only room in my place besides the bedroom and bathroom. 

She was asleep for roughly two hours, about half the time I’d slept. I made us bacon and eggs, with toast she wouldn’t touch. She warned me about American foods, especially bread, and promised that her mom would bring us real Russian bread. (My bread isn’t very good. It’s a very popular brand with a half-life comparable to uranium-238. If your bread never gets moldy, that’s probably not a good sign, but its endless shelf life is great for the owner of the nearest inconvenience store.) 

Margarita insisted I get my laundry gathered, most of which was dirty. It usually is. It costs me $9 per load at the Laundromat and I’m broke most of the time. She swore she was going to get it all done for free. I was uncomfortable with that, because dirty laundry is better than missing laundry, and I didn’t really know this person. I didn’t think she’d steal, but she seemed a bit flighty, like she might leave and then forget what she was doing and go off somewhere else. I filled a garbage bag with clothes that wouldn’t break me if they were lost. 

Margarita called a dispensary and had cannabis delivered, in multiple forms. The delivery person, who I’ll call Marcia, spoke both English and Russian perfectly, and was obviously a friend of hers. She asked Margarita to talk with her outside, presumably to warn her of the danger of going home with some random person (Yours Truly). When they returned, Margarita dragged out two big trash bags of clothes. This wasn’t just a pot delivery; it was the laundry connection. 

A debate in Russian ensued, and though I don’t speak the language, it was pretty easy to follow. It was a lot of laundry, much more than this friend was expecting. I spoke up and told Marcia I hadn’t expected her to do my laundry and had already explained this to Margarita. That settled it. Marcia would take the one giant bag with Margarita’s clothes and no more. She would wash and return them. Margarita wasn’t going. 

I’d been waiting for her to leave so I could go get cigarette tubes. I’d gotten anxious about it, because it was getting late and the store I needed was a mile and a half away and closing soon. I told Margarita I was leaving and would be back shortly. She said she wanted to go with me. I explained the time crunch. She said she’d get ready as quickly as possible. 

We left my place around 9:30 p.m. As we cut through the Hannaford parking lot, she abruptly turned and walked into the supermarket. I followed, curious to know what she was after. She was getting a bottle of liquor. 

I got the tubes at the Big Apple (my usual cig shop by now long closed for the night) and we walked uphill toward Monument Square. I wanted to find my friend and finally give him that five dollars. He was there, playing guitar, as I’d hoped. 

There was another guy there who recognized me and introduced himself. He’d written the long series for The Bollard about outlaw biker and bodybuilder Jake Sawyer, so we had mutual collaborators. During our conversation, an argument erupted between Margarita and my friend. He threatened again to smash a guitar over her head. I pushed her away from him and rapped him on the noggin (Moe Howard would have been proud). 

Our Three Stooges bit was a bit too much for my fellow Bollard contributor, who quickly and quietly slipped away, leaving behind a stack of guides to social services that he’d compiled and printed himself, on his own thin dime, and was distributing around town to those in need. It was too much for me, too, and Margarita and I moved on. 

She’d passed the bottle around in the square and it was running out, so she wanted more booze. It was past midnight and there was no alcohol being sold outside the bars, except beer and wine. So we went to get beer. She bought good beer, a local IPA, so I gave in and started drinking. This was the second night in a row I’d drank, and the first time I had done that in nearly six years. 

We headed downhill from Cumberland Farms, toward Deering Oaks. She picked flowers all along the way and dropped them into a milk crate half-full of other stuff she’d found, which was getting heavy. We found a shopping cart and transferred the load. By the time we got to Deering Oaks we’d killed most of the 12-pack and collected enough flowers to fill a field. 

I don’t know exactly what happened in the park, but in short: she bit me on the thumb and I ditched her. After leaving her there, it dawned on me how this biting might appear to a cop if she reported an incident. So I called the police myself to explain what had happened. 

The cops met me on St. John Street and I told them the story: a woman from Kazan, Russia, who was seemingly unstable, had just bitten me. I didn’t want to press any charges and refused to tell them her name or where I’d left her. I just wanted the bite on record. They told me I could call them if I wanted them to chaperone when she came to my place to get her things. I went home and went to sleep. 

Margarita had been texting me the whole time I was talking to the police, and continued texting whilst I slept. When I woke up, I texted back to assure her she’d get all her stuff. The last thing I wanted was to steal from her, or for her to be without the things she needed in the streets. But she couldn’t come alone. We needed a chaperone. 

I didn’t want to call the police again. I don’t like cops. So I decided she should call Marcia, and she did. Marcia and her boyfriend came by later that day and everything was fine. Margarita got her things, though it took about three hours. 

While we waited, Marcia told me Margarita had owned a salon in Kazan, one of Russia’s biggest cities. She left the business and a cottage house there to come to Maine and be with her mom and daughter. Apparently her family here had recently reported her missing to the police, but the local cops didn’t pick up on that. Must be a lot of women from Kazan running around biting random Portlanders these days. 

Margarita said they were all going to her mom’s house to sauna, and I was invited. I told her that probably wasn’t a good idea — we needed time apart and she needed to patch things up with her mother and daughter. Marcia agreed with me, but when she stepped outside to talk with her boyfriend, Margarita told me she was planning to ditch them at her parents’ house and head back to my place. I again stressed that she shouldn’t do that. 

My phone rang at 3 a.m. It was her. I answered, half expecting Margarita to be right outside my window. She was upset, talking through tears, saying she wanted to come back. Again I said it wasn’t a good idea, we needed a night apart. But then a cop took her phone and explained to me that they’d just written her a criminal-trespass order barring her from her mom’s house, she was refusing hospital treatment, and if I wouldn’t take her, that left only one option: jail. I didn’t want her arrested, so I told them to bring her to me. 

The officer — a person I’ve known for years, who’s about as good a cop as someone can be — helped me unload her belongings from the SUV, and the three of us had a normal conversation on the sidewalk. It seemed to me like a typical domestic dispute had happened at her mom’s place. No charges were filed, just that white piece of paper preventing her from returning to the residence for a year. Margarita hadn’t really been homeless when we met, but she was now. 

So that was our first 48 hours together. We went inside, and both of us slept until just after 10 a.m. Then she helped me clean and we went on an adventure. The next week would be one adventure after another, and a whole lot of fun. 

Margarita was still pretty unbalanced and had been fighting with her boyfriend, but they made up. He was coming to town to meet a friend of hers who she thought might hire him for a DJ gig. 

She was half in the bag by the time he arrived, drinking burgundy wine. They had another argument and he decided to leave. He had just driven here from Rhode Island. She tried to stop him by throwing herself onto his vehicle. It was quite a scene, and I had to hold her back while he drove away – during which time she bit me again. 

This was Wednesday evening, May 24. Margarita didn’t sleep again until she was sedated in Maine Medical Center, two days later. 

By that Friday she was in full-blown mania, and as a consequence, my place was a disaster. I covertly reached out to Marcia and asked her to intervene. She was busy and asked if I wanted her to contact the police department’s Behavioral Health Unit (BHU). I really didn’t want that, but didn’t see any other options, so I agreed. 

More than two hours passed and nobody called or came by. I convinced Margarita to take a shower (after she persuaded me to get her a 12-pack). When the cops finally showed up, she was showering and calming down. They wanted to remove her from the shower. I said there was no way that was happening, and told the two male officers they weren’t allowed inside my apartment. I allowed the female BHU officer inside while the uniformed male copswaited in the vestibule. 

Margarita refused to talk to her, as I’d expected. I’d also told the police Margarita had to go willingly, that I wasn’t going to force her to leave. But the BHU officer said Marcia was coming over to try to persuade Margarita to get medical help. She arrived a few minutes later and easily convinced her friend to go to the hospital. Margarita left in the BHU vehicle without incident and was brought to the emergency room at Maine Med. 

Two days later, Sunday the 28th, Margarita called me from the hospital, level-headed, and apologized. She said maybe our friendship had been moving too fast. It was a good conversation. She asked me to visit her there and I brought her some snacks. 

She was transferred to Spring Harbor on the 30th. I visited regularly, bringing more snacks and some books she probably had difficulty reading; English is hard for her. 

On June 8, we were served papers. She had a hearing on June 14, and I was named in the paperwork as a personal contact. The authorities were seeking to hold her at Spring Harbor for up to 60 days. I immediately called the lawyer named in the summons. He called me back on Sunday, June 11, and said he’d send me a Zoom link for the hearing. He never did. 

None of the official paperwork Margarita was given was in Russian, and she hadn’t been provided an “interpreter on wheels” (a mobile translation service). When I asked hospital authorities why this hadn’t been done, they said she hadn’t asked. I commented that foreign patients shouldn’t have to ask for information crucial to their health and liberty written in their native language. 

Two days before the hearing, there was a “family team” meeting at Spring Harbor with the psychiatrist, another doctor, the clinical social worker, Margarita, her boyfriend and me. There was a remote translator available, and I thought Margarita argued her case well. I knew that many of the accusations against her were inaccurate or flat-out false. 

During that meeting, the social worker said that in order for Margarita to be stable upon release, she required more than medication. She needed a psychiatrist, a clinical therapist and a caseworker. The social worker said Margarita already had an acceptable psychiatrist, but not a therapist or caseworker.  

When I left Spring Harbor, I promptly placed some calls and located an acceptable therapist (for up to five pro-bono sessions) before I got home. The next day, I found a caseworker who would work temporarily with Margarita until she had a permanent one. Maine Med’s outpatient psychiatry department has a waiting list for caseworkers, and Margarita had been on it for about a year.

During the June 14 hearing, the judge, upon learning that Margarita was being administered a new medication that would take at least a month to work, decided Spring Harbor could hold her for a period “not to exceed thirty days.” Before rendering her decision, the judge took a moment to “commend” me for my hard work on Margarita’s behalf, and for being a good friend. Her Honor said this was an example of what community should be all about. Those are my ethics, too, so it meant a lot to have someone officially take notice. 

On June 22, Margarita called me at 9:30 a.m. to tell me no one would bring her to a scheduled orthopedic appointment for her hand. Spring Harbor was fully aware of the appointment prior to her admission on May 30, and had assured her family and me that she would get there. I called the hospital and was told they were short-staffed, so they couldn’t take her. I mentioned to the social worker that while mental health is somewhat subjective, a broken hand isn’t. I also noted that Margarita is a hairdresser by trade and permanent injury to her hand could lead to future disability. 

So they released her. 

Her stepfather and I went to pick her up from Spring Harbor. We had a meeting with the social worker prior to discharge, and Margarita seemed very level. We also discovered while talking with the social worker that Margarita did, in fact, have a therapist, one working at the same Maine Med outpatient facility as her psychiatrist. A quick phone call would have cleared that up, but no one at Spring Harbor bothered to do that during her mandatory, albeit foreshortened, three-week stay. No applications for housing assistance after release were filed on her behalf, either, though she qualified for more than one program, and acceptance would have kept her out of my place.    

Her stepfather and I loaded her things into the car. As we drove away from the hospital, Margarita snapped. She began screaming at her stepfather about something she’d overheard him say. She continued to yell all the way back to my place, and her aggressive behavior only escalated afterward. Apparently she wasn’t ready to be released. 

The next three days were difficult. The cops were called several times — by my neighbors, and by me. My apartment was more of a disaster than it had been after her first episode. On Sunday evening, I mentioned a couple things to her that we needed to accomplish on Monday. She began to make excuses and tell me about other plans, so I told her she had to go. 

She refused, so I dialed 911. Then she left, so I hung up. But it’s 911 — they called right back. I told the dispatcher what was going on, and that Margarita had gone. They said an officer would be by. A cop called a few minutes later and said they weren’t coming if she wasn’t there, that they can’t even write a trespassing order if she isn’t present. 

I didn’t see Margarita again until July 8, a Saturday, though we’d been in touch by phone in the interim. She was down in York County wreaking havoc. That afternoon, she and her boyfriend came by to grab some more of her belongings. 

I wasn’t home when they got to my place, and hadn’t been expecting them. I’d been playing guitar at a memorial service on the East End, and afterward at Deering Oaks. I got back around 3:15 p.m. and Margarita and her boyfriend were in and out in just over an hour. 

On Monday, July 10, I received a phone call from an officer of the law at Portland police headquarters whose job title is, perhaps un-ironically, Neighborhood Prosecutor. He said he was going to send a letter to my landlady demanding my eviction. My address had been reported too many times to the police of late. He brought up my landlady’s shoddy reputation and said it wouldn’t be very difficult to make me homeless again. I also got a call from my landlady that day. Turns out she had already received the threatened letter from the police. 

The prosecutor told me that if I’d try to convince Margarita to commit herself voluntarily, he would mention that in his report — and if I wasn’t willing to try, he’d report that, too. He also said there was video of her committing crimes, but if that was true, they shouldn’t have needed my help. I wasn’t able to help, and her family and boyfriend all called the prosecutor and told him I couldn’t help her. 

I told him I hadn’t seen her much aside from the brief visit two days prior, and she wasn’t even in Cumberland County these days. He said the police received four calls about my address on July 8. I said that wasn’t possible — I’d helped Margarita and her boyfriend peaceably pick up her stuff that afternoon. “I can’t be wrong,” he replied. “I’m looking at a computer log.” Then he said the police calls were made late Thursday night or early Friday morning, but that was July 6 or 7, not July 8, and Margarita wasn’t even in town. 

On July 14, the prosecutor called again from the police station. This time he wanted me to hang up from our conversation and call police headquarters back to request a criminal-trespass order against Margarita (who, again, was in York County somewhere). I replied that a cop had already told me those orders can’t be issued without her present, and I wasn’t willing to call the police for one unless she returned to my place and caused trouble. 

The prosecutor said police could write the order without Margarita present, and that he’d mention my unwillingness to do his bidding in his report, which would work against me during eviction proceedings. I pointed out again that he’d been wrong about the date of the alleged police calls. This time, without admitting his earlier error, he claimed the calls had been made between 2:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on July 8. I wasn’t even there during most of that time period, and no cops showed up when I was home.   

That evening, the neighborhood prosecutor went to see my landlady in person. But she doesn’t want me out. She told the cops I’ve been an exemplary tenant for nearly five years. As of this writing (late August), I haven’t received an eviction notice. 

Neither have I received payment from any of these health-care and public-safety professionals who’ve been getting me to do their jobs for them. But I should. [Cash App: $KennyWaning] 

Cops and civilians alike can support Kenny’s work by subscribing to The Bollard at, where his epic memoir, Transience, is available in its entirety as a downloadable PDF, lovingly illustrated with photographs and drawings by local artists.   

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