LEWISTON, Maine — For the past two months, Maimouna Djouma and her four sons have been crowded into a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Maple Street.
At night, the family of five sleeps on the only free spaces available: two couches, one bed and the floor.
During the day, they struggle to navigate through the apartment and around each other. It’s especially difficult for Djouma and one of her sons, Ouseiny Ousmane. They both use wheelchairs.
“It’s too hard,” said oldest son Michaella Ousmane, 22. “We are five people in one bedroom.”
He has taken to roaming the streets of downtown Lewiston in search of “For Rent” signs in an effort to help his mother and three younger brothers. The little apartment is his home.
His mother and brothers, ages 13, 18 and 20, used to live in their own, larger apartment at 110 Pierce St. — until May 3, when the second of this spring’s trio of devastating fires destroyed it.
Within minutes that night, their home was gone.
Two months later, the family is the last of the fire victims without a new apartment.
“They’re wonderful, wonderful people,” said Tina Pelletier, president of NC-REMA, the property management company that oversaw the family’s old Pierce Street building. “Very, very clean. Great tenants, always paid their rent. They’re just wonderful people. It’s been so heart-wrenching not to be able to find them something.”
Djouma and her four sons came to America in 2009. The family, from the central African country of Chad, had lived in a refugee camp. Djouma and two of the boys deal with the aftereffects of polio contracted a dozen years ago — she and one son use wheelchairs, and another son can’t walk very well. They had hoped to find better medical care in the U.S.
The family moved from Atlanta to Lewiston in 2010. They lived on Knox Street for a short time, then moved to the subsidized Pierce Street apartment, where they paid 30 percent of their income toward rent.
The three-bedroom home was large enough for the family, wheelchair-accessible and close to services, including a translator — which was important since the family speaks Fulani, not Somali, and only one Fulani translator is known to live in the area.
The family was happy there, with Djouma and her three youngest sons on Pierce Street and her oldest son living in his own little apartment nearby on Maple Street.
Then came May 3.
“We heard someone scream,” Djouma said as one son, 18-year-old Younoussa Ousmane, translated. “Then we went outside and see the fire.”
The family got out safely. A couple of days later, they were able to retrieve a few belongings: a phone, a wheelchair and the skateboard Djouma used to scoot around inside the house.
They stayed for a brief time with their translator. Then they moved in with oldest son, Michaella.
As charity groups, housing organizations and landlords sprinted to find apartments for the approximately 200 people left homeless by the spring fires, Djouma and her sons waited. Quiet and respectful, they hated to make a fuss about their living situation or bring attention to themselves. So they filled out paperwork and patiently waited for a call about a new apartment.
But the few calls they got were about places that wouldn’t work. Spaces were not handicapped accessible. One apartment didn’t pass a basic health and safety federal housing inspection, which was required because the family was coming from subsidized housing and that subsidy would transfer to their new apartment.
By the time the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston learned about the family’s plight, nearly every other fire victim had found a place. Today, officials believe every family has found a new home. Every family but Djouma’s.
In recent weeks, officials from Trinity and NC-REMA have scoured the area for an apartment for Djouma and her boys.
“I’ve called every landlord we’ve ever worked with,” said Erin Reed, development director and volunteer coordinator for Trinity. “We’ve called every listing in Craigslist. I’ll drive around downtown Lewiston and look for ‘For Rent’ signs.”
But nothing has come of it.
The apartment needs to be a handicapped-accessible three-bedroom located in the downtown area. Trinity volunteers stand ready to build a wheelchair ramp for any apartment building that doesn’t have one but otherwise fits the family’s needs. So far, though, that hasn’t opened up any options.
As a last ditch effort, Reed brought up the idea of publicizing the family’s plight in an effort to find a landlord who might have a place. The family was reluctant but eventually agreed.
They’ve lived together in the one-bedroom apartment with limited wheelchair access for two months. They can’t do it for another 12 to 18 months, the time it’ll take for their Pierce Street apartment building to be rebuilt.
When asked what she’d like in a new apartment, Djouma didn’t have to think long about her answer. “Space,” she said immediately as her son, Younoussa, translated.
“She says she wants a house (where) she feels comfortable,” he said.
To help Maimouna Djouma and her sons find an apartment, contact Erin Reed at the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston at firstname.lastname@example.org.