BELFAST, Maine — For some people in the Belfast area, their idea of homelessness may look like a squalid cluster of tents hidden on a hillside or the group of young people that spent much of the summer panhandling downtown.
But to others, including Glen Widmer, the principal at the Captain Albert Stevens Elementary School in Belfast, these images do not tell the complete story. A few weeks ago, he said that about 10 of his school’s 300 students were considered homeless.
“Generally, they are housing insecure. They are in between places,” he said, adding that other students may not know that their classmates do not have a steady place to sleep at night. “They’re coming to school because it’s a stable place. Kids want to come to school, especially when their home life is tenuous. Because this is a place that’s the same every day.”
Homelessness in Waldo County has been in the news this year, especially because of the debate over an effort to provide tents and other camping gear to people who needed it. Earlier this fall, more debate ensued after a mushroom hunter stumbled on a derelict campsite near City Point Road. But to those who are in a position to know more about homelessness in Waldo County, these headlines often missed the point. Widmer said it’s uncommon for his students to sleep in a tent at night, but housing insecurity happens more, and affects a wider swath of people, than most people would suspect.
Housing insecure students usually don’t broadcast their situation, and neither do school officials, who work to help students and their families in a number of ways. There is a food pantry at the elementary school and a backpack program to help food insecure students bring needed staples to their homes. Staffers also coordinate with homeless families, working to connect them with community organizations.
“The school is a communications center … We really try to make it easier for people living in crisis, to offer a little stability,” Widmer said. “I think it’s also important to note that we have a lot of resilient kids that can be in homeless situations. They come in. They do really well at school. They have friends. They’re doing the work. It’s impressive to see the kids that keep going.”
On a mission
Another local man is working hard to help the more apparent homeless and housing insecure people of Waldo County, the ones who often do sleep rough. In his case, he’s doing it because he feels he’s on a mission from God.
Over the last year, Matt Bolduc, a 35-year-old Stockton Springs resident, has become something of an activist, starting a new group called “From Above,” which advertises itself as offering a hand up and not a hand out. From Above helps provide hygiene kits and so-called uplift kits, which include winter hats, mittens, socks and other warm clothes, to men and women who need a little help. He also dreams of one day opening a modern-day mission building in downtown Belfast — a safe place for people to get out of the cold, take a shower and, perhaps, start to put their lives back together.
“My reverend said, ‘Matt, this is your calling,’” he said. “I wasn’t meant to cut trees or mow lawns. I was meant to get these people back to some kind of wholeness. Life is about people — that’s all it is. It’s not about money. It’s not about power. I’m out to unite people.”
Bolduc has firsthand knowledge of the grim realities of homelessness. He grew up in the shadow of grinding poverty and addiction, and by the time he was 17, he was on a downward spiral, living in his car and worse.
“I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been run over by a car,” he said. “I was like a black cloud. Wherever I went, trouble went with me.”
Bolduc said that in his 20s, he did a lot of traveling up and down the East Coast and would often stay at homeless camps. People he met on the road were enduring hard times of their own.
“I had a lot of friends die on me,” Bolduc said.
Back in Maine, he worked toward becoming a licensed arborist. But the dark cloud still hovered above him. In his 20s, he got in trouble with the law and struggled with alcoholism before finally kicking the habit eight years ago. He suffered from severe Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, and was so sick he remembers wanting to die.
Still, there were glints of sunshine in the clouds. He had a few good friends in his life who never gave up on him. And almost a year ago, after a long fight to prove he qualified, he finally received disability benefits because of his disease.
For Bolduc, that day changed everything.
“When that happened, I realized my true purpose,” he said.
That was helping the people who seemed to be discarded by society. He began reaching out to the homeless community, providing them supplies, friendship and tough love.
“What does it take to better a life?” he asked.
He feels a lot of people could help with the answer. Bolduc, who said he spends about half of his modest monthly disability check on people who are homeless, doesn’t think it’s right that there is such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots in Waldo County. Where many people have enough, or more than enough, he argues, a few shouldn’t slip through the cracks so profoundly.
“I need people to join me in this march, this revolution of goodness,” he said.
For now, in the roomy trunk of his 30-year-old Lincoln Town Car, he stores tools he employs to help people who are down on their luck: winter boots, warm clothes, hygiene kits and more. He knows their names and their stories, and if he hasn’t seen them for a while, he will search them out to make sure they’re still alive. He figures he checks in on 15 to 20 people a week.
“I feel this sadness for these people,” he said. “If we don’t take charge of it, how will this issue ever be fixed? I’m not OK with it, so I just started doing it.”
From Above is sponsoring a community discussion on homelessness, called “What is the Price of a Life in Waldo County,” from noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 1 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast at 37 Miller St.
Related: Carolyn Fish talks about being homeless in Bangor for years