The guests start lining up before 3:30 p.m., which isn’t usually considered “nighttime” for most people. For these guests, however, and the people who serve them, 3:30 is the beginning of a long evening routine that mostly goes unnoticed by the city around them and ends with housing an average of 58 to 65 homeless people each night.
This is the Hope House, operated by Penobscot Community Health Center and one of Bangor’s two main homeless shelters. From a sprawling, one-story building on Corporate Drive that is so nondescript it could be mistaken for a dentist office, the Hope House offers emergency shelter, transitional housing and health care for the area’s homeless population.
My evening at the Hope House began in a group room where 10 participants, all of them homeless, were attending a Rent Smart meeting. Rent Smart is a 6-session course that teaches individuals how to find and keep decent housing. Upon completion, participants receive a certificate that helps assure area landlords that they are committed to being knowledgeable, reliable renters.
On this night, the group was going through a mock lease agreement. Abby Smith, the facilitator (the Hope House calls them “Navigators”), asked the participants a series of questions: “Who can stay in the apartment according to this lease?” “Can you have pets in this apartment?” The group’s relationship with Abby begins here in the classroom, but for one year after they complete the course, Rent Smart graduates will have her support as they integrate back into the community.
“I will help you when you go get housing,” Abby tells them. “I will highlight parts of the lease agreement for you.”
Most of the participants, whose ages ranged from early 20s to late 60s, eagerly looked through the papers in front of them and raised their hand to answer Abby’s scavenger hunt-like questions. A few were sleeping, and at least one was visibly ill. For them, the evening’s lesson offered a safe and warm environment, a chance to lay down their head and forget about their homelessness.
All of the participants clearly connect with and respect Abby. I would soon learn why.
At 4:30, the class ended and Abby announced that it was time for everyone to check in at the shelter down the hall. Once the room cleared, I mentioned to Abby that it must feel strange to go home and know that the people she has come to care about so deeply are still in the shelter.
That’s when Abby told me that she doesn’t need wonder what it’s like for them. She knows. Abby has been homeless. Five years ago, she was living in a homeless shelter and separated from her daughter. After hitting rock bottom, she went to Bangor’s United Technologies Center and received a CAN certificate to pull herself out of poverty. Today, she is going back to school, is in recovery, has made a home for herself and her daughter, and recently purchased a brand new car — the first she’s ever owned. She’s also PCHC’s employee of the year.
“[People] believed in me so that I could believe in myself,” Abby said of her time in a shelter. And now, “I am able to give [these individuals] the same opportunity I was given.”
Down the hall, guests were arriving at the shelter entrance. Most are welcomed by Paul Leary, a campus aide who was also homeless and sheltered at the Hope House more than 3 years ago. He has been sober for two and a half years, and his eager smile emphasizes how proud he is to be wearing an employee badge on the other side of the front counter. Besides checking in the guests’ bags, Paul likes to ask everyone about their day and what they’ve done to better themselves.
I watched as Paul inspected guests’ bags and retrieved their medication (all medication is locked in boxes behind the front desk), and I was surprised to see the range of people who are homeless. Maybe that sounds ignorant or naive, but I think we all have an image in our mind of what homelessness looks like, and many of the guests coming through the door were not fitting the stereotype. If you saw them on the street, you might not even realize they had slept at a shelter the night before.
Standing nearby was Peter Phillips, a counselor at the facility. I mentioned this to him and asked how most of the guests end up at the Hope House. “What’s on the surface is drugs — all different kinds,” Peter said. “But what’s below that? Divorce. Broken homes. Death of loved ones.”
In other words: Drugs and alcohol are a major problem for the homeless population, but the tipping point for many of them is the same life challenges faced by people like you and me.
In the dining hall, where guests were lining up for hotdogs and beans served by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, I met Susan Reynolds, a housing coordinator who has worked the evening shift at Hope House for 10 years. Susan is a recovering alcoholic who said that while she has never lived in a shelter, she was “homeless in my own home.” Her drinking had caused her to lose everything — even money to heat and light her home. She had a roof over her head, but she was alone and cold, and she had lost most of her family.
Despite the obvious tears in her eyes, Susan interrupted our conversation often to say hello to guests, pat them on the back and ask about their day.
“For some of [the guests], coming here for dinner is all they have to look forward to, to see the staff and say hello to someone,” Susan said. Around us, the dining hall was as noisy as a school cafeteria. Guests mingled and talked about their day. They were especially excited about the night’s dessert: ice cream. One gentleman was filling out Valentine’s Day cards and debating politics with his tablemates.
“It’s just like a family,” Abby Smith, who led the night’s Rent Smart class, said.
After dinner, the guests help clean. Then the dining room becomes a recreation area where guests play cards, do puzzles and watch television. Later, the same room will serve as overflow for extra beds and guests. People mill around the halls with their friends and sometimes go to the fenced-in patio to smoke.
If you think this sounds a bit like a college dorm, you’d be right. It’s easy to see how some homeless people might feel anxiety about leaving this “family” for a quiet apartment of their own. Except, at the Hope House, men and women are sheltered in separate rooms that are filled wall-to-wall with twin beds and donated bedding. All toiletries are rationed by Hope House employees. The guests’ belongings are stored in a locker room and only accessible by permission from the staff. Medication is available at appointed times and must be taken at the front window, under supervision.
Some of the guests seem to relish this state of being cared for. One gentlemen, for example, followed us around asking Abby for boots and snacks. Other guests, however, are noticeably struggling with a loss of dignity, even as the staff goes above and beyond to make the guests’ stay as dignified as possible. I watched as one man quietly took his medicine, something many of us would do in the privacy of our own bathrooms. Only, he was at the counter, with a line of people waiting behind him. He never looked up. He just quietly said thank you to the staff and walked away when he was done.
At the front desk, Paul said he likes to welcome people as they come through the door, but he never wants people to think of the Hope House as their home. He wants them to think of it as a way station on the road to the next best possible situation in their life. That’s the same reason Abby encourages so many to attend Rent Smart. While being sheltered means giving up a lot of autonomy, completing Rent Smart gives guests a glimmer of hope that things can get better, that they will be in control of their own life again.
As everyone was settling down and getting ready for “lights out,” Abby and I met a guest in the locker room. He was quickly stuffing his belongings into a small bag.
“Are you leaving?” Abby asked.
“I’m going to the other side,” he said, smiling.
Abby ran over to him to give him a high five. Later she explained that going to the “other side” often means the guest has qualified for transitional housing on the far end of the shelter. There, guests have (and pay for) their own room. They are able to come and go as they please, and hopefully, they will work with Abby through Rent Smart to get more permanent housing outside of the shelter.
When we toured the transitional housing wing, Abby ran into another newly placed resident. He had just come to the other side and received his key that night. He proudly showed us his new room, about the size of a small dorm room, and introduced himself to his new neighbors. Abby beamed as she watched him. He is one step closer to being the success story she has become. Before we left, she touched his arm and told him she couldn’t be happier for him.
Which reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote that is on the wall in the room where Rent Smart meets: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Five years ago, people made Abby feel worthy of the life she leads today. One by one, she is paying it forward and making others feel the same. I know they will never forget it.