When Lawrence Bergeron and his four teenage grandchildren were evicted from their Bangor apartment in March, they had nowhere to go but their Toyota minivan. For about the next six months, the family slept sitting up in their car seats, as the 52-year-old grandfather searched in desperation for a place that would accept his federally subsidized housing voucher.
“It was hell,” Bergeron said.
In Maine and across the United States, people with low incomes who are struggling to afford their rent can apply for something called a housing voucher — public assistance to cover almost the full cost of their residence. They don’t have to be homeless like Bergeron to apply for the help, and with so many American communities struggling to provide enough affordable housing, people can spend years on waitlists to receive a coveted voucher.
But the waiting doesn’t stop there, as Bergeron experienced this summer. Even after someone receives the help they need to pay for a roof over their heads, they can still go weeks or months before signing a lease, according to data and interviews.
There is no centralized data collection in Maine on how long it takes for someone using a voucher to find a home, but people in Maine frequently wait up to four months, or sometimes longer.
As Bergeron witnessed firsthand, using a voucher introduces its own hurdles. The subsidy can slow the rental process because it requires some coordination with the government, primarily in the form of an inspection, which ensures the home is up to code and safe to live in. But that oversight can deter landlords and gives people who can pay cash a competitive edge. What’s more, the inspection disqualifies substandard housing that some landlords are unwilling or unable to repair.
There’s also the stigma of receiving public assistance — a difficult-to-prove but frequent factor in people’s inability to find a place to live.
“I mean, some days, I was at my wit’s end,” Bergeron said, recalling the nearly 100 Bangor-area landlords with places that wouldn’t pass inspection, had no available units or didn’t return his phone calls. “No matter where I was, I was hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall.”
Making matters worse, his search played out in the midst of an affordable housing crunch in greater Bangor, a problem that has city officials meeting to study the problem. Homeless families could be especially disadvantaged, as they are often seeking inexpensive, multi-bedroom homes, which are in even shorter supply.
These forces converged to keep Bergeron’s family from signing a lease for nearly half a year, in what was a particularly dire-case scenario of what homeless families in Maine endure to find housing.
‘Boom. We’re out’
Before his eviction March 29, Bergeron was living on Bald Mountain Road in Capehart, a public housing complex made up of old Air Force base units that is run by the Bangor Housing Authority.
Bergeron, a former TV cameraman, has been raising his grandchildren since they were little. He became their legal guardian a few years ago when their parents — Bergeron’s son and daughter, each single parents — died. In 2015, his 17-year-old grandson and 12-year-old granddaughter lost their mother to cancer. Two years earlier his 15-year-old and 13-year-old grandsons lost their father to a drug overdose.
Grief has compounded the challenges of raising four teenagers on limited means, Bergeron said. Those challenges have made it virtually impossible for him to hold down a fulltime job and be a single parent, he said. During a recent interview at his dining room table, his cell phone rang nearly every 20 minutes with an appointment — a doctor, a counselor, a Maine Department of Health and Human Services worker. Or it was one of the kids themselves.
Bergeron said the March eviction was the result of some bad luck and an honest mistake. During Thanksgiving 2017, the police were called to his apartment after a drunk guest got angry and called 911, and then officers found a needle on another guest, he said.
The needle put Bergeron on probation with the housing authority, meaning a single violation of his lease would cost him the apartment. That happened on March 1, when Bergeron missed an appointment with the housing authority related to his lease recertification, according to a paper notice he received.
One of Bergeron’s grandsons had run off that morning, Bergeron said. “I had to go chase him down, and I forgot about [the appointment].”
He pleaded with the housing authority to let him stay, but the eviction proceeded.
“So boom. We’re out,” he said. “Then the homelessness started.”
That first night, the family piled into their silver Toyota Sienna minivan, the first of two vehicles where they would sleep for nearly six months. Bergeron slept in the front seat, while the kids leaned against one another in the back. He looked for discreet places to park the car overnight — the driveways of abandoned buildings, parking lots and quiet side streets.
When summer arrived Bergeron borrowed money to pay for a motel room on the hottest nights. Otherwise, he placed t-shirts over the car windows to block out the sun and kept the engine on overnight to run air conditioning. Still, they woke in the mornings covered in sweat.
“I did not like that, especially when I had strep throat,” Bergeron’s 17-year-old grandson, Trevor LaRochelle, said.
Only once did the idling car prompt a police officer to knock on the car window.
“I said, ‘Shh! The kids are sleeping!’” Bergeron said.
Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.
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