BANGOR, Maine — Though he holds a master’s degree in library science, Avery can’t work full time or he will lose access to his Mainecare coverage, which he said he needs if he is to receive treatment for health problems related to his cerebral palsy.
Though the University of Maine hired him to work 16 hours a week in 2009 and 2010, Avery said he was forced to cut his workweek back to 14 hours so he wouldn’t lose access to his health coverage.
Still underemployed, he now is working 20 hours a month as an Americans With Disabilities Act researcher for the University of Illinois.
“I like to work but I also like health insurance,” the 41-year-old man said while discussing barriers to economic health that Mainers and others face in a system they say penalizes them just as they are struggling to get back on their feet.
Thea is a single mom who says she lost her full-time job, along with the health insurance and the other benefits that came with it, while she was out on maternity leave.
Though she was part-owner of a small business and worked multiple jobs, Thea said she could not have earned her bachelor’s degree in social work without the help of a combination of government programs — including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and Section 8 housing assistance.
These are just a few of the stories told by the three women and four men who took to the Gracie Theatre stage Wednesday night as part of Faces of the Poor, a roughly two-hour presentation at Husson University.
The point of the program was to allow Mainers who depend on government programs to tell their stories in an effort to dispel perceptions that they are lazy or otherwise bad citizens.
Moderator Pat LaMarche noted that the public often demonizes the poor because many do not understand how or why poverty happens.
While the stories were moving, powerful, funny and inspiring, above all they were brutally honest.
One speaker, who grew up in poverty, said he did not know bananas were yellow until he started going to school because the only ones his widowed father could get for him and his twin were the bruised, browned castoffs from a nearby store. Another, who spent time in a Bangor homeless shelter, recalled having stolen boots and other clothes to keep warm.
Before the stage presentation, more than 20 social service organizations serving the region’s low-income, homeless and otherwise disadvantaged populations discussed what they do during a reception in the Gracie Atrium.
Others who spoke were;
— Loren, a disabled retired Maine Department of Transportation worker whose pension barely pays for the health insurance plan he must keep to cover his wife, who also is disabled, and adult daughter, who has been struggling with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life.
— Brandon, who lost both parents by the time he was 17 and found himself homeless before having the chance to graduate high school. Though he once couch surfed, spent time in a homeless shelter and abused alcohol, a government program allowed him to develop construction skills and get back on his feet. He now is an apprentice at one of Maine’s largest construction companies.
— BJ embezzled money from a former employer to feed her abuser’s drug habits. She credits her arrest on a felony theft charge and four years in a southern Maine women’s prison for giving her the time, courage and resources she needed to turn her life around. Now remarried, a mother of two and full-time mentor of domestic violence victims at Spruce Run, BJ graduated from the University of Maine two weeks ago.
— A disabled veteran, Charles moved his family of five to Maine from California because he wanted to attend Bible college. That did not work out and problems with his spine worsened to the point where he is unable to work a full workweek.
— Elizabeth, who spoke with her daughter Julie by her side, is a single mother of two who was homeless until April 7. Her homelessness was the result of domestic violence.
Sponsored by WKIT and WZON, Stephen and Tabitha King’s Bangor radio stations, Faces of the Poor featured people from the community who say they were hurt by the Maine Legislature’s final budget.
“I grew up Methodist, and I remember a lot of those scriptural readings I heard in church,” Stephen King noted in a news item posted on his stations’ website. “One of them, from the book of Matthew, quotes Jesus: ‘Here is the truth: anything you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Or, from the book of Luke, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
“The poor are just as much a part of our community as the rich. They deserve bread for their tables, a roof over their heads, clothes to wear, and shoes to walk in. When we do for them, we do for ourselves,” King said. “It’s called sharing the love.”
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Avery's job history.