BANGOR, Maine — When you meet her, it’s hard to imagine that the confident young woman Felicia Hatch is today once was on the verge of homelessness and overwhelmed by what she needed to do in order to create the life she wanted for herself and her children.
But thanks to the help of a Bangor shelter program, the 24-year-old has turned her life around.
Seven years ago, Hatch was 17, pregnant and living with her boyfriend in a Bangor apartment.
Though things were nice at first, she quickly learned that the father couldn’t hold a job. Even after she had their child, Andre, who’s now 5, she was forced to work 14-hour days to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The baby’s father and other relatives took turns baby-sitting, Hatch recalled in an interview this week.
“I would go without eating for a week at a time so that I could buy diapers for my baby,” Hatch said. Making matters worse was that her then boyfriend was using drugs behind her back.
The final straw was when she came home to find Andre listless and unresponsive. She took him to the hospital, where she was told he was dehydrated. When he failed to improve after a few days, she took him back to the hospital, where she said an MRI revealed injuries and healing that indicated that boy had been violently shaken on three occasions.
A subsequent investigation showed that the only person who could have done the shaking was the baby’s father, she said.
“You can’t possibly imagine how a parent would feel hearing something like that. Every time I think of it I just want to cry,” she said.
She left the boyfriend and Andre went into foster care for a few weeks while she sought a place to stay. She initially wound up at the St. Andre’s Home in Bangor, a facility for new mothers associated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Good Samaritan Agency. After her situation was deemed safe for Andre, the two moved into the My Choice Shelter, a homeless shelter for pregnant and parenting women at 181 State St. operated by Maine Adoption Placement Services.
While there, she met another boyfriend and became pregnant again, this time with her son, Gabriel, who turned 2 on Tuesday.
The couple moved to Massachusetts, where they lived together until she caught him cheating on her, Hatch said. She then moved back to Maine, where she briefly lived with family. But tensions soon forced her to move out.
Homeless again, she re-entered the MAPS shelter, which had moved to outer Essex Street, was renamed MAPS Shelter Services and now offered a series of life skills-building programs.
There, she gave birth to Gabriel, obtained her general equivalency diploma and began taking the first few tentative steps toward rebuilding her life.
Michelle Hamlin, shelter services coordinator, said Thursday that the program has helped many women such as Hatch and that the need for support services is high in the Bangor area.
“I receive calls each week from young mothers who are homeless and looking for a ‘safe place’ to live with their children,” she said.
MAPS first opened a shelter about a decade ago at 181 State St. in Bangor. It offered apartment-style housing, though little in the way of structured support services.
Three years ago, the shelter moved to 1296 Essex St. under the name MAPS Shelter Services, Hamlin said. That facility, however, could serve only four women and their children at a time and the lease costs were becoming prohibitive.
The opportunity to move into a more spacious home at 913 Essex, which can house eight women and their children, came about last year as the result of a foreclosure, Hamlin said Thursday during an open house at the new location.
Hamlin said she’d been eyeing the vacant former foster home for senior citizens for months when she finally saw a car in the driveway and stopped by to inquire.
There, she met Joanne Higgins, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker and member of Zonta Club of Bangor, a women’s service organization.
Higgins said that when she landed the listing for the sprawling 10-bedroom house, “The first thing that went through my mind is who is going to buy this.”
Hamlin, however, thought it would be perfect for the shelter and the two began working out the details, which proved considerable because the property had been foreclosed on and the mortgage company had changed hands.
After the closing this spring, the women and children staying at the former Essex Street location moved into a local hotel until the new shelter could be made ready for them.
Hamlin said that as soon as the city’s code office gives her the green light, which could come as soon as Monday, she is going to collect the seven women and five children from the hotel and move them into the sprawling, eight-bedroom shingle-clad house.
The overhaul renovation effort spanned three months and involved a mix of paid maintenance workers and volunteers, some with ties to MAPS and its Stepping Stone Family Services program and others from the community, Hamlin said.
The new shelter also has a new name — StepUP! — which Hamlin says better reflects the program’s aim, namely to keep parents and kids together by arming mothers with the life, parenting, work and community skills they need to parent safely and effectively, become productive members of the community and live free from government assistance — all in a safe, stable setting.
To live there, women must be homeless, 18 and up or emancipated, and pregnant or parenting. Though they don’t pay to live there, shelter residents must begin applying for permanent housing within 15 days of arriving.
They must attend school, work or volunteer for 30 hours a week, apply for foods stamps, find day care and cook for themselves and their children.
“I give them the resources, but I don’t do it for them,” Hamlin said. “Adult decisions got them here and adult decisions will move them along” to self-sufficiency.
The rules are strict. Residents must keep their rooms neat and clean up after themselves and their kids. No visitors are allowed, though supervised visits by fathers are permitted. Also banned are alcohol, drugs or weapons.
Those who don’t abide by the rules and conditions are subject to eviction, Hamlin said.
The approach works.
“We average a 95 percent success rate of families transitioning into permanent and stable housing, which provides security for the children and allows parents to become productive members of their community,” Hamlin said.
Shawn Yardley, director of health and community resources for the city of Bangor, says StepUP! is a facility that the area needs.
“It’s a great resource, another tool in the toolbox to offer. From where I sit, that’s great,” Yardley said last week. “I think it’s an efficient and economical response, too.
“I think one of challenges is that we don’t have a whole lot of housing options [for pregnant women and mothers],” he said last week. “There are a few in Maine but they are rare.”
Since “graduating” from the shelter program a little more than a year ago, Hatch has reunited with her high school sweetheart, Jeff Bragdon, who has become a father figure to her boys. The family now lives in a three-bedroom apartment on Ohio Street in Bangor and Hatch is enrolled at Empire Beauty School in Bangor, where she will complete her training as a cosmetologist this fall.
Bragdon, a customer service manager at the new Wal-Mart in Bangor, is attending the University of Maine, where he is pursuing a business degree.
Hatch credits the support and skills she received at the shelter for putting her on the road to achieving her dreams of one day owning a home and running her own salon.
“You get what you put into it. I knew what I wanted for my kids,” she said.
“I’m just a really strong person in that I know what I want and I know what I need to do to get it, and if I don’t know what I need to do, I’m going to find out from someone who does.”
For more information about the shelter and its programs, contact StepUP! at 990-3005 or by e-mail at: email@example.com.