Carolyn Fish was nonetheless dwelling in a tent alongside the financial institution of the Penobscot River throughout the first November snowfall of 2017. When a trio of Bangor cops stopped by her campsite to ask if she wanted assist discovering a place inside for the winter, she greeted them by identify.
In the roughly 4 years since the fallout from an abusive relationship left her with out a job or house in Bangor, Fish had developed a acquainted rapport with the numerous police and homeless outreach staff she’d met as she cycled via flats, shelters, campsites, motel rooms and, a few occasions, jail.
Despite the fact that many of those similar individuals repeatedly tried to assist her discover housing, she returned to dwelling outdoors. Homeless yr after yr, Fish was the sort of shopper that shelter staff in Bangor described as the most troublesome to assist.
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“I hated living in the woods,” Fish, 54, stated in a current interview. However an habit to alcohol, amongst different setbacks, made it troublesome for her and her wheelchair-bound boyfriend, Larry Noyes, to discover an house and maintain it with out being evicted.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” she stated. “When we started drinking in the morning, nothing [got] done.”
Solely a small proportion of people who find themselves homeless in Maine go with out a roof over their heads for months and months, as Fish did.
However the small variety of people who find themselves homeless for extended durations means it’s potential for social service staff to know the place they’re and focus their consideration on them. That is what has been occurring in Maine, displaying what is feasible when the proper individuals determine to collectively deal with a drawback that had beforehand appeared insurmountable.
Traditionally, homeless shelters have been designed to meet the wants of these experiencing a momentary emergency ensuing from circumstances of poverty. In the final 5 years, Maine officers have modified their strategy to higher serve individuals like Fish, who require a deeper intervention.
As a end result, since 2013, the variety of adults tallied by shelters as spending greater than half the yr outdoors has shrunk from 262 to 68, as of July.
“I don’t want you to leave with the impression that we are somehow close to ending homelessness. We have a long way to go,” stated Cullen Ryan, chairman of Maine’s Statewide Homeless Council, a coverage advisory group established by the Maine Legislature in 2005. “But we’ve figured out a way to actually house and keep housed one very challenged population, and that is our longest stayers. And that’s going to make it easier to house everybody else.”
Whereas the modifications stemmed from a want to higher serve individuals, officers like Ryan additionally realized how this small group absorbed an outsize portion of the already restricted assets devoted to aiding Maine’s homeless.
Likewise, research have proven it prices Maine taxpayers extra to assist those that are homeless than to pay for his or her housing and social providers.
It stays to be seen whether or not Maine’s new technique will finish long-term homelessness. The already formidable effort shall be even more durable to obtain amid a statewide reasonably priced housing crunch, and given restricted state and federal funding for rental help packages, specialists stated.
However for Fish, the new strategy — which prioritized individuals like her who appeared to be perpetually homeless — was important to breaking the cycle of vagrancy. When she and Noyes arrived at the Bangor Space Homeless Shelter a yr in the past, on Feb. 2, 2018, there was not solely a mattress, however a plan ready for her.
‘We were recruiting them hard’
Rising up poor in St. Petersburg, Florida, taught Fish how to fend for herself at an early age. Scrappy and charismatic, she labored for 17 years at Governor’s Restaurant and Bakery in Bangor as a prepare dinner and waitress.
Her life fell aside about 5 years in the past when her abusive boyfriend imperiled her job and housing. Police incessantly confirmed up at her condominium due to their preventing, and Fish’s boss warned that she might lose her job if he didn’t cease displaying up at the restaurant.
Each time she broke up with him, he gained her again. “He ruined my life,” stated Fish, who has a scar from the time he threw a malt liquor bottle at her face.
By the time they cut up up for good about 4 years in the past, Fish had misplaced her job, was unable to discover everlasting housing and began consuming closely.
She got here to depend on individuals caught in the similar cycle, lots of them additionally scuffling with substance use, psychological well being points and the regulation.
“I had friends everywhere. I could take a bath, take a shower,” she stated. “But they were drinkers, that same addiction we had,” Fish stated.
One among them was Noyes. From the time they began courting three years in the past, Fish and Noyes have been inseparable, in half as a result of Noyes required hourly look after the well being issues brought on by his consuming.
He was the first man she dated who didn’t bodily abuse her, she stated, though she knew he had an in depth felony historical past that included convictions for home violence. He was additionally considered one of two suspects in the unsolved disappearance of his spouse greater than 20 years in the past, in 1993, although he was by no means charged.
Noyes denied any involvement in his spouse going lacking, to the police and to Fish, who stated she was by no means afraid of him. Fairly, she feared that he would die if she didn’t keep by his aspect. She helped feed and gown him when his motor features began to deteriorate. Utilizing a Sharpie pen, she wrote “Take me to the shelter or the hospital” on the again of his blue backpack in case they ever turned separated.
Even so, they slept outdoors in the heat months, principally at a secluded campsite behind the horse racing monitor in Bass Park. Fish constructed a picket wheelchair ramp over a grassy culvert alongside the path main to their tent.
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In the winter of 2017, Noyes’ well being worsened, and Fish stayed by his bedside for 170 days when he was hospitalized for an alcohol-induced stroke, she stated. When he was launched, he continued to drink regardless of a analysis of superior liver cirrhosis, Fish stated.
Fish didn’t need to return to Bass Park, which was too removed from metropolis providers if Noyes wanted an ambulance. As an alternative, she and Noyes joined a sprawling encampment on the financial institution of the Penobscot River, or so-called “Tent City,” the place they stayed until police broke it up round Thanksgiving.
One night time, not lengthy after the police paid them a go to, Noyes turned violently ailing. He stayed in the hospital for 10 days with double pneumonia and sepsis from an contaminated leg wound.
“That was the end of it,” she stated. After years of selecting to reside outdoors, she advised Noyes she needed to examine into the Bangor Space Homeless Shelter. They did so on Dec. 11, 2017.
It was a breaking level for Fish, however, for the shelter employees, it was extra of a breakthrough. For years, that they had labored to construct belief with Fish and Noyes in anticipation of the second they might be prepared to settle for assist.
“We were recruiting them hard,” stated Boyd Kronholm, the shelter’s director. “Part of [homeless outreach] is meeting the person where they’re at. And sometimes they’re not ready to change.” That could possibly be due to habit, psychological sickness or having had a unfavourable expertise with social staff in the previous.
In Bangor, cops do the bulk of the outreach, however they steadily arrest the similar individuals they’re making an attempt to assist — a dynamic that doesn’t assist construct belief.
At first, Fish and Noyes have been resistant to dwelling at the shelter the place that they had to abide by guidelines they discovered tedious, Fish stated. They left after solely three days, on Dec. 13, 2017. They cashed a few of Noyes’ Social Safety checks, and spent the cash on alcohol and motel rooms until February, she stated.
It was the lifeless of winter once they ran out of cash, and Fish knew they couldn’t hold dwelling day to day. Noyes’ eyes had turned a sickly yellow from consuming. They checked again into the shelter on Feb. 2, 2018, and didn’t depart until that they had signed a lease on an house, 118 days later.
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‘Everybody knows them by name’
Native service suppliers see the similar small group of individuals, these like Fish and Noyes, again and again. However despite the fact that there aren’t many people who find themselves homeless long-term — they accounted for 1.three % of the 6,450 individuals at shelters final yr — they typically keep at the shelters for a disproportionately very long time.
The sample, coverage specialists realized a number of years in the past, illuminated a weak spot in Maine’s homeless providers that was each inefficient and dear.
For example, 116 of the 2,050 individuals who stayed at the 130-bed Oxford Road Shelter in Portland in 2013 have been there for greater than half the yr, staying night time after night time due to a debilitating situation, in accordance to Group Housing of Maine, the state’s largest housing supplier for the previously homeless.
That meant simply 6 % of the shelter’s yearly clientele have been taking over most of its beds, forcing employees to roll out overflow cots or flip others away. In the meantime, 54 % of the individuals who handed by means of the shelter stayed fewer than two weeks and 33 % for fewer than three days.
As well as to taking over shelter beds, individuals experiencing long-term homelessness recurrently depend on different emergency providers. It’s costly.
In 2007, a research in Portland discovered that it’s cheaper by almost $950 in the first yr to pay for somebody’s lease and supportive dwelling providers — reminiscent of a case supervisor, psychological well being care and substance use remedy — than to cowl the prices of being homeless.
That’s as a result of, when the research individuals discovered housing, they wanted 60 % fewer ambulance rides, required 52 % fewer emergency room visits, had 68 % fewer interactions with police and spent 62 % fewer days in jail. Plus, shelter utilization plummeted 98 %.
Not surprisingly, getting individuals off the streets and into housing additionally improved their bodily and emotional well-being.
These findings align with a nationwide development towards a “Housing First” mannequin to tackle persistent homelessness. Housing First packages prioritize the placement of individuals into housing earlier than assembly their different wants. Housing alone removes the tense circumstances that exacerbate the signs of their disaster, stated Ryan, who can also be the government director of Group Housing of Maine.
This mannequin satisfied individuals like Ryan that it made sense to shift Maine’s assets towards discovering everlasting, supportive housing for the state’s most difficult homeless inhabitants. In principle, this strategy to serving to the minority would unlock room for extra individuals at shelters and save taxpayer cash.
In July 2013, when Ryan and different homeless coverage leaders sorted by way of the state’s shelter knowledge to decide who was staying in shelters or outdoors for greater than half the yr — a group they name “long-term stayers” — the listing was solely 262 individuals lengthy.
“It suddenly seemed feasible to house this group of people,” he stated. “If you do it locally, everybody knows them by name.”
Starting in 2013 at the path of the Statewide Homeless Council, state and native homeless providers suppliers have pinpointed particular long-term stayers after which prioritized them for outreach and housing.
Most of those individuals have been straightforward to discover. In Bangor, a group of emergency service suppliers, shelter employees and the Penobscot County Jail social employee meet month-to-month to go over a confidential record containing the names of individuals biking by means of the space’s emergency providers.
“Someone from the Hope House [shelter] might say, ‘We haven’t seen this guy in a while. Do you know where he is?’” stated Kronholm, with the Bangor Space Homeless Shelter. “Because these long-term stayers are folks using services all the time, we know where they are and who’s working with them.”
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In 2015, one other main change occurred: MaineHousing, the quasi-state company that administers state and federal dollars to Maine’s 38 publicly funded homeless shelters, modified its funding method to one which rewards shelters based mostly on how properly they place individuals into housing.
A part of that change shifted cash away from the variety of beds in a facility and towards funding housing navigators, who assist shoppers with the daunting, bureaucratic strategy of making use of for rental vouchers and maneuvering the housing market. They additionally work with shoppers after they’ve moved in to make sure that they’re getting the providers they want to keep away from turning into homeless once more.
“That’s a game changer right there,” stated Joshua D’Alessio, supervisor of homeless initiatives at the Hope Home Well being and Dwelling Middle. “That’s a shelter without walls.”
‘Being brand new’
Nick St. Louis has labored on and off at the Bangor Space Homeless Shelter since 2011. In 2016, he was employed as the shelter’s first navigator.
He’s recognized Fish for seven years, and when she and Noyes arrived at the shelter final December he fought to reserve them a place in a new reasonably priced housing house complicated that was beneath development on Courtroom Road, to be operated by Group Housing of Maine. Eligible tenants are required to proceed utilizing providers offered by the shelter.
Fish and Noyes wanted to wait until development wrapped up in June.
The ready was a wrestle for Noyes, Fish stated. He didn’t like the guidelines of shelter life — waking up at 6 a.m., having to placed on footwear to go to the toilet.
However they managed. St. Louis would take them to go to the development website each few weeks, “just to say, we are getting a place, Larry,” Fish stated. In the meantime neither of them have been consuming, and Noyes began seeing a physician and consuming more healthy meals. His well being improved so dramatically he was in a position to stroll utilizing a cane.
After 5 months in the shelter, they moved into their new condominium on June 1.
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“Nick worked so hard to get us in here,” Fish stated, sitting in her front room, a brief distance from the Kenduskeag Stream. Regardless that it was summertime once they moved in, neither she nor Noyes needed to spend time outdoors, she stated.
However Noyes began consuming as quickly as he left the shelter, regardless of warnings from the physician that his liver would fail, Fish stated.
His relapse felt inevitable, she stated, particularly when individuals from their life on the streets stored stopping by the house, asking for a place to keep. It was arduous to inform them no as a result of so lots of them had taken her in when she was homeless, stated Fish, who was consuming once more, too.
Inside two months, the couple had violated their lease 4 occasions due to loud events and unsanitary dwelling circumstances, Fish stated. By July, the shade of Noyes’ mild brown eyes had returned to yellow.
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“Getting people into housing isn’t the end of it,” St. Louis stated. In some ways, serving to Noyes and Fish discover an condominium was solely the first, and maybe best, step to preserving them out of homelessness.
That’s as a result of the root causes that set off a individual’s homelessness nonetheless stay once they have a residence. For Noyes, that was alcoholism.
One night time in late July, his liver failed, and he vomited blood. He died in the hospital the subsequent day, on July 25, Fish stated. He was 51. He’d had a house for 2 months.
‘More homeless than housing’
Noyes’ dying displays the excessive challenges social providers suppliers face as they search to scale back the variety of Mainers who’re homeless for extended durations. However regardless of these difficulties the Statewide Homeless Council Lengthy Time period Stayer Initiative has proven promising outcomes, with a 76 % drop in long-term stayers since 2013.
The decline doubtless would have occurred quicker if Maine had extra reasonably priced housing choices and a higher variety of rental subsidies, Ryan stated.
“It’s hard to provide services to people that don’t want them. But it’s also hard to provide services that aren’t available,” St. Louis stated.
Specialists have been additionally fast to say that this achievement displays the state’s capability to assist individuals in disaster, not curb the fee of homelessness in Maine. Whereas the discount of long-term stayers has freed up extra beds in Maine shelters, they’re nonetheless perpetually full.
“Society is creating more homeless than housing. It’s kind of a losing battle sometimes,” Kronholm stated.
In the meantime, Fish is monitoring her progress daily.
This fall, St. Louis helped her enroll in a new program provided by the Hope Home, which offered her with a case supervisor.
“Like, Social Security papers. I don’t know how to fill them out,” Fish stated. “[My case manager] Brandy will sit down and whiz right through it.”
Fish stated she nonetheless struggles with alcohol, however is seeing a physician and a grief counselor. She credited St. Louis with maintaining a shut watch on her.
“He doesn’t want to see me fail,” she stated.
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Her house is adorned with the key chains and drawings she spends hours making. It’s tidier with Noyes gone, however she feels his absence day-after-day. An urn containing his ashes sits on a desk by the kitchen, and Fish has positioned little mementos to him round it — his previous driver’s license, a pouch containing trimmings from his beard, a pack of Winston cigarettes.
Towards the ultimate days of his life, Noyes was ornery and hopeless, and Fish felt trapped by his sickness, she stated. However since he died, Fish principally remembers how humorous he was and the way carefree he might make her really feel, even dwelling in a tent.
The final time she noticed his face was at the funeral house, earlier than he was cremated. She stated he seemed extra peaceable in demise than he had in a very long time.
Maine Focus is a journalism and group engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to [email protected]