PORTLAND, Maine — Roger Goodoak looks for people who often don’t want to be found, on the edges of a society that doesn’t often want to see them.
He drives the streets of Portland in a van, pulling up alongside secluded loading docks, overhangs and patches of woods.
Goodoak hands each person he finds a bottle of water, maybe some gloves or a hat, and starts a conversation. He’s looking for military veterans among the hundreds of people living on the streets of Maine’s largest city.
Goodoak wants to help, because he knows what they’re going through. He’s been there, he’s made it through, so he knows there’s a pathway to hope.
Once drunk, depressed and battling schizophrenia on the streets of nearby Biddeford, Goodoak is now stable, the primary caregiver for two teenage children. He is also the founder and driving force behind the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance.
Goodoak hands out bottled water, mittens and a range of other supplies — wheelchairs and walkers, for instance — about as fast as people donate them.
“There’s never enough,” Goodoak said. “When I run out of coats, I give out blankets. My children have given the blankets off their beds. My daughter reached into her pocket and gave up her allowance to buy food for a man who was hungry.”
Now in its second year, the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance is a federally recognized nonprofit organization with a wide spectrum of goals.
Goodoak has successfully lobbied alongside state Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, to pass a state law allowing veterans with honorable discharges to qualify for high school diplomas, and has his sights set on opening a veterans “drop-in center,” where they can come in from the cold and socialize or pick up donated items.
In addition to the hats, mittens, jackets, blankets, socks and water Goodoak regularly distributes, the alliance also gathers furniture donations so once-homeless veterans who find housing can furnish their apartments.
“You don’t see too many things happen like this without a bigger organization behind it,” said former Navy medic Darrell Roath, a veteran who sometimes accompanies Goodoak on his drives around Portland. “He’s been doing this for a long time on his own income.”
The need is palpable. Hundreds of veterans stay in Maine homeless shelters every year, while many more go uncounted living on the streets, according to Portland homeless service provider Preble Street.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that veterans are twice as likely to become chronically homeless than non-veterans, and about a third of all homeless Americans are veterans.
In Portland, nearly 500 people seek emergency shelter every night, according to the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, and coalition odds would suggest more than 150 of those people are veterans.
“They’re grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters,” Goodoak said. “They’ve been successful in their lives. Everybody who served is a hero. They stepped up to do something.”
For a long time, Goodoak’s experience factored into those statistics. He left the Navy after 14 years in 1986, and his life quickly fell apart.
“I couldn’t keep a job,” he recalled. “I thought everybody was talking about me behind my back and didn’t like me. I always felt like people were after me. So I drank. I was trying to self-medicate.”
Goodoak said he can’t remember many details of that life.
“I don’t even remember who I stayed with, where I spent my time,” he said. “I was a drunk. I don’t remember.”
About a decade ago, the memories start to sharpen up. That’s when he said a friend suggested he visit the homeless shelter in Portland, where staff directed him to Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.
There, Goodoak said he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. After years of therapy and medication, he has settled on a regimen that stabilized his life.
He secured housing and gained custody of his children.
He met with a support group to talk about his experiences. Two years ago, something happened in that group that led to the formation of the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance.
One member of the support group, a veteran named Mark, died. Goodoak said his body was in his apartment for two weeks before his landlord discovered it.
“He had a little green mat and a TV,” Goodoak recalled. “He drank himself to death. He said, ‘What do I do? I have nothing.’ Mark was a great guy — he was funny, he was interesting. But when he went home, he was alone. He had nothing. He told us he had nothing, but we didn’t hear him.”
Goodoak and others in the group came to the painful realization that just connecting homeless veterans with programs that could help secure housing — in Mark’s case, the federally subsidized Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program — wasn’t enough.
He began networking to build up donations of furniture so veterans in new apartments could fill the space and make them homes.
That effort snowballed. Goodoak rededicated himself to helping homeless veterans make the full transition he once made — to get warm and fed, to get connected with VA medical and housing programs, to furnish those spaces and start over.
It’s a long process that, for Goodoak, begins with a bottle of water or gloves.
“When I come across people, they’re cold, they’re hungry and they’re miserable,” he said. “I just try to help them survive the night.”