During my vacation, I wandered the streets of Portland, Maine, like a vagabond. But not really. Because I wore nice clothes, was mostly clean, and had money for food. By the fourth day, I decided it was time to summon the courage to talk with one of the real street people.
There were several to pick from; people sitting on flat window ledges or overturned buckets with homemade cardboard signs asking for money. Since The Holy Donut was one of my favorite places, I chose to stop and talk to a woman who was begging a few yards away.
I asked her this burning question, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” She said it was no problem since The Holy Donut allows her to use theirs. But she doesn’t like to impose since it is such a small place.
She said there are other options, like the Irving Station down the street or Starbucks. I said, “What about the combination lock at Starbucks? She laughed, “We all know the combination, and they almost never change it.”
I asked her if she was homeless and she answered, “I was for several years, but now I have a studio apartment. This will sound crazy, but I miss the people at the women’s shelter and living by myself is lonely.” What she didn’t miss was the drinking, drugging, and drama that pushed her to the limit, forcing her to leave periodically, only to get back on the waiting list to return.
When she got her apartment, a local church gave her a ‘blessing box’ that included some essential kitchen items, a blanket, and a shower curtain. She said, “Do you have any idea how vital a shower curtain is to someone who has nothing? Most people don’t think about that. And I got a voucher for $200 for furnishings, so I was able to buy a table and two chairs.”
Once she retrieved her twin bed from storage and her cat, Rosie, from foster care, she avowed she had everything she needed.
She sits and asks for money because her monthly income consists of a $50 rent voucher and $169 in food stamps. And she needs money for essentials not covered by food stamps, like toilet paper and cat food. Plus she’s saving to buy dentures.
Her teeth were extracted last summer when she had a dental infection that spread through her body resulting in endocarditis (heart infection). She was in the hospital from August to October.
She said she was thankful to qualify for free care through Maine Medical Center because her bill was more than $250,000. She doesn’t qualify for any health insurance programs, including MaineCare (Medicaid).
I told her I’d like to give her some money, but I had to break a large bill, and she smiled, “That’s okay. Don’t feel any obligation.”
I said I’d be back and went looking for something I could buy with my twenty-dollar bill so I could drop a fiver or a couple of ones in her cup.
I got a phone call from my friend Lee Gaitan and told her about Susan. She asked, “Did you find out how she got in this predicament?” I said, “No, that seemed too personal. What if it is a horrible story of abuse and crime? She might not want to talk about it.”
But I realized any real reporter asks hard question. Since I’d already broached the bathroom subject, it shouldn’t be too hard to touch on other sensitive issues. So I decided I’d go back and buy her iced tea, which would break my twenty, promote conversation, and demonstrate my generosity.
Next week I’ll share more of Susan’s story with Part 2.
Have you ever stopped to talk to a street person? What was your experience? Did you find out how they came to fall on hard times?