PORTLAND, Maine — To a young Josh O’Brien, they were “uncles and aunts.” To many others who passed by them on the street, they were drunks and vagrants.
O’Brien, now 41 and the director of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter, first experienced shelter life as a young boy tagging along with his mother or father to their jobs working with the homeless, victims of abuse and substance abusers in the Boston area. On Thursday, O’Brien will receive Portland’s Robert B. Ganley Public Service Award, which annually recognizes an individual for his or her dedication to public service and is considered the city’s top honor.
Living in Somerville, Mass., O’Brien’s mother worked at a shelter for battered women and his father at a halfway house for alcoholics in downtown Boston. As a youngster, he would tag along with his parents at their jobs on evenings and weekends.
“It was comfortable,” he recalled. “I had a lot of aunts and uncles. The people being served by the shelters — as a kid, you don’t differentiate them from anybody else in your life. In some ways, it’s all I’ve ever known.”
So O’Brien always has seen the poor and homeless as individual people with universal problems, a perspective that seemed so obvious to him as a child but which he acknowledges many people don’t have.
“I realized early on that it was OK to have trouble, it was OK to make mistakes, and that everybody deserves a second chance,” he said.
“We all know people, especially over the last few years, who have lost a lot — sometimes everything,” O’Brien continued. “It can happen to any one of us. I’ve seen people who I’d thought of as world beaters, who could do anything, and I’ve seen them face collapse and end up in a place you never would have imagined.”
Just after noon Wednesday, O’Brien walked through the Oxford Street Shelter, making sure mats were laid out and straightened for the evening influx of shelter seekers. The city of Portland is seeing unprecedented numbers of homeless people, with the 154 beds at Oxford Street filled each night and overflow locations above the Preble Street soup kitchen and city general assistance office nearly reaching capacity nightly as well.
“Few realize how fortunate the city of Portland is to have Josh,” said City Manager Mark Rees in a Wednesday statement. “His compassion and commitment to ending homelessness has changed and, in some cases, saved lives. Whether it’s targeting homelessness among veterans or fighting for employment opportunities for those most hurt by the recession, Josh has been instrumental in the city’s efforts to help people find stability in their lives and a home to call their own.”
Before the Oxford Street Shelter begins assigning beds for the night at 6 p.m., O’Brien spends each afternoon with his staff of facility managers, counselors and social workers, who try to find solutions for problems ailing the shelter clients. Sometimes that work takes the form of helping those individuals fill out applications for subsidized housing or other benefits, and sometimes it takes the form of providing a listening ear or shoulder to lean on.
“For a majority of the men and women crossing the threshold of Oxford Street Shelter, his efforts along with his staff have led to these individuals securing stable housing within a matter of months,” reads a Ganley Award announcement issued by the city Wednesday, in part. “His understanding of the complex issue of homelessness has been a true asset for the city.”
Before starting work in Portland in 2001, O’Brien worked at a shelter in Massachusetts and as executive director of the Portsmouth, N.H.,-based nonprofit organization Friends Forever. Friends Forever runs programs focused on forging relationships between children from opposite sides of long-warring factions in Northern Ireland.
Those experiences — and his exposure to shelter life at a young age — helped form what the city’s announcement described as “his calm demeanor in even the most stressful situations,” he said.
“One of the things we talked about in the Northern Ireland program is that common experiences are so much greater than the small differences that divide us, and that’s the same case here [in Portland],” O’Brien said. “It can be effective to remind folks that there is a shared experience here and we have to look out for each other.”