‘First time my child has smiled since we’ve been in a shelter’: Portland venue hosts Christmas for 130 homeless children, parents

Posted Dec. 18, 2013, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 20, 2013, at 4:40 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Matthew Wakefield went down the bright yellow slide over and over again on Wednesday night, his blond hair blowing back and blue eyes lighting up with each turn. The 16-month-old had a face full of glee, but according to Paul Golding, the child is also the face of homelessness.

Golding, the development director for the family housing and counseling nonprofit Stepping Stones, said that may come as a surprise to some.

While many think of homeless people as adult men with substance abuse problems — and recognizing that there are people who fit that description who also need help — Golding said those individuals don’t make up the biggest percentage of homeless people nationwide.

“The face of homelessness is a woman or a child,” he said. “The average homeless person is actually a woman with a child — maybe two.”

Portland arcade and indoor play place Joker’s opened its doors Wednesday night to nearly 130 parents and children from area family shelters for their third annual Christmas party. The attendees were given transportation, a hot banquet-style meal, unlimited access to the games and playground equipment, and — for the children — stuffed animals and stockings filled with goodies.

“This is an opportunity for one night, at least, for people to just have fun, let the kids be kids,” Golding said. “Many of these families are not going to have a traditional Christmas in the way most people think of.

“As a human being, I get choked up,” he continued. “These kids did nothing to deserve being homeless. They want to go to school, they want to play with their friends, they want to have a warm place to go to bed at night. It’s minus-5 degrees outside.”

In addition to clients from Stepping Stones — which runs a 12-bed family shelter in Portland, an eight-bed facility in Bangor, and will open a six-bed shelter next year in Houlton — residents or clients of the Portland Family Shelter, Mercy Hospital’s McCauley Residence, Florence House and Crossroads for Women attended the Christmas party at Joker’s.

Patty Wakefield, 25, is Matthew’s mother and a Stepping Stones client. She said she was kicked out of her mother’s house after last Christmas and “had nowhere to go.”

Wakefield said she works when she can, but before getting involved with Stepping Stones, which helps coordinate services, she couldn’t find steady enough child care to hold down a regular job.

She said she didn’t know what kind of Christmas she would have been able to provide her son if not for the Joker’s party, which has tripled in attendance since starting three years ago with 35 guests.

“This gives me hope, and it shows me I’m not the only person in this predicament right now,” she said. “It’s great to be able to mingle with other families who need the same help I do.”

Michelle Bussiere manages the Portland Joker’s and said she raises money through benefit events and 50/50 raffles to pay for the annual party.

“This is their Christmas,” she said. “It’s rewarding when a parent comes to me and says, ‘This is the first time my child has smiled since we’ve been in a shelter.’ It’s not much to us, but to them, it’s a lot.”

Golding said women and children end up on the streets due to divorce, trying to escape domestic violence or losing a job, just like their male counterparts. Homelessness across Maine has increased 26 percent from already high 2012 numbers to 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Maine had a homeless population of 3,016 as of the department’s fall report, an increase of 623 people in a year’s time.

Almost half of all Maine individuals who are homeless — 1,453 — are part of a family unit that is homeless. That’s a jump of more than 31 percent compared to 2012.

“Many people are just one paycheck away from being homeless,” Golding said. “It’s very stressful — it’s stressful for the mom, and it’s stressful for the kids. But everybody here is a success story. They’re not giving up.”