Cassie Gagnon (left), children Braeyden and Ashlynne and Lorretta Pottle, in their apartment at Tedford Housing’s family shelter. The family was homeless for over a year, but are finally getting back on track. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — If Cassie Gagnon and Lorretta Pottle hadn’t gotten into the Tedford family shelter when they did, the two women, along with their two children, Braeyden, 6, and Ashlynne, 3, could have died.

 

The family had been sleeping in their car for more than two months, the trunk filled with blankets, stuffed animals and a few precious belongings. They had no way to store any food other than snacks, no way to cook, no way to take hot showers and no money to spare. Everything went either to food or gas to keep the car running so they did not freeze as the cold nights of November and December set in. They were exhausted, staying up most nights, too scared and discouraged to sleep.

“You feel like you have no way out,” Gagnon said.

The stories of families like Gagnon’s and Pottle’s are at the heart of a debate over the future of homeless shelters in Brunswick. In fiscal year 2018, Tedford Housing, which provides emergency homeless shelter and supportive housing in Brunswick, had to turn away 354 individuals and 228 families seeking shelter. Nearly a year ago, Tedford pitched construction of a new shelter and resource center, but the town stalled the plans after it realized it didn’t have a zoning ordiance that allowed shelters, even through Tedford had been operating in town for decades. The town council has scheduled a workshop Wednesday to discuss the planning board’s shelter recommendations.

Gagnon and Pottle’s problems started in fall 2017, when Gagnon’s window was broken in the parking lot of their Lewiston apartment, allegedly by another tenant. They gave their notice, only to fall victim to a housing scam, they said, leaving them without a home and with no money. It did not get any easier from there, and the family spent the next few months in a camper or couchsurfing until checking into a homeless shelter where Gagnon said they were “treated like prisoners.”

They say they were wrongfully evicted from the shelter, (the employees responsible quit before their official grievance could be filed) when they were just days away from getting their own apartment. The eviction meant they lost their housing voucher.

Suddenly, Pottle was fighting to keep her kids and what little money they had been able to save went to hotels, then to food and gas to keep them alive for the next few months once they could no longer afford lodging.

By the time they were able to move into Tedford Housing’s Federal Street six-unit family shelter, it was New Year’s Eve and they had been homeless for the better part of a year and a half.

The first thing they did was take hot showers. Then they began to pick up the pieces of their lives and get back on track.

Now, the couple has been in the shelter for a few weeks. The kids are clean and warm, they have a refrigerator full of food, and next week they are going to enroll Braeyden back in school for the first time since October. When their housing voucher was approved last week, “we cried for hours,” Pottle said, and although housing in Brunswick is “a feeding frenzy,” it will hopefully only be a matter of weeks now until they have their own apartment. It’s scary though, to think of making something feel like home after so long having nothing, she said.

“It’s been a long road,” Gagnon agreed, tearing up. “It’s hard for homeless people to look for help. If we had gone to a shelter before, maybe by now we’d be in our place… but if it weren’t for Tedford we might be dead in the car.”

There are lots of other struggling families like Gagnon and Pottle’s. But Tedford, which has the family shelter and a 16-bed single shelter on Cumberland Street, cannot house them all. The problem is only increasing as many landlords stopped accepting Section Eight housing vouchers during the government shutdown, meaning that many people have to stay in the shelters longer, taking up a spot that someone else might need.

To help combat the increasing problem, nearly a year ago, Tedford announced plans for a new homeless shelter and resource center on Baribeau Drive and Pleasant Hill Road.

Tedford Housing’s Cumberland Street unit in Brunswick, as seen in this March 2017 file photo (The Times Record, file)

However, Brunswick town officials realized current zoning ordinances do not define homeless shelters and, as it stands, they are not permitted. A shelter task force was developed to create recommendations for the new zoning ordinance, which included definitions for a resource center, apartment-style shelter and non-apartment style. The planning board reviewed the task force recommendations and made a few changes over a series of three continued workshop sessions through the fall and winter and approved an amended list earlier this month to send forward to the town council. However, a group of Brunswick residents is determined to keep the new homeless shelter out of their neighborhood, claiming that with the existing Cumberland Street Shelter they are already supporting more than their fair share of the town’s homeless and low-income populations. 

There were also concerns about children in the area of Cumberland Street. Mitchell Brown of the Northwest Brunswick Neighborhood Association said that teens at the local teen center have reported drug solicitation and harassment near the existing shelter, making them feel uncomfortable.

To many homeless in the community, though, this was a low blow. “We’re not all junkie mental patients, we’re just people who are down on their luck,” said Rick Heffron, who said he has been homeless on and off since his divorce a few years ago. “We need places like Tedford to get back on track.”

Heffron has his housing voucher and is pushing to get into his own apartment so that somebody else can take his spot at the adult shelter.

“Nobody deserves to be homeless,” he said, recalling entire winters he spent on the street.

Morton, 34, who asked to just be referred to by his last name, is also bothered by what he sees as “defamation of character.”

Tedford Housing’s family emergency shelter is located on Federal Street in Brunswick. Tedford is planning a new resource center that would include a new emergency family shelter and adult shelter, and centralize its existing services and offer resources to help guests navigate health and human services, case management and take classes on everything from rent-finding and financial management to job search and child care. (File photo)

“The ones in the shelter, we’re the ones trying to straighten their lives out,” he said.

Morton has been homeless on and off since he was 17 and has been at the Cumberland Street shelter for about a week. He stays away from hard drugs and alcohol, he said, but rents are always just about the voucher limit, and a mental health issue and an old, class B felony on his record have made securing housing even more difficult.

But Morton is determined to find something so that he can get his kids back. He picks up work doing landscaping or snow removal when he can, but his disability presents additional challenges that are only exacerbated by the physical and emotional toll of being homeless.

Victoria Jackson agreed. It’s really the “way people treat you” that makes it hardest, she said. Jackson has been sleeping in a tent in the woods since October. She won’t stay in a Tedford shelter again, she said, but declined to explain why. Wearing thick socks under a pair of sandals, Jackson said she relies on blankets, extra socks, candles and even sugary foods to help keep her warm during the freezing nights. She is not sitting still. Jackson recently received a degree from Central Maine Community College and is looking for a job. She goes to the Gathering Place, a day shelter, three to five times per week to check her email for responses, and maybe warm up with a cup of coffee.

“You have to show them the strength within you,” she said.

The number of homeless people in Maine is unclear. In 2018, the Point in Time Count, a snapshot of homelessness on one night of the year, found 1,125 homeless individuals in shelters or on the streets. This number was 5 percent lower than the in 2017, with 63 fewer people.

However, according to Jeffrey Stanley, a volunteer who has been conducting the Point in Time Count for the last six years, the system is inherently flawed. The count does not include people who are couch surfing or staying with friends for a few days, but are still homeless, he said. Plus, until this year, the questionnaire they used asked invasive questions about drug use and sexually transmitted diseases, which many people chose not to answer. An incomplete questionnaire is discarded, he said. This year, those questions were removed and when the count was taken Jan. 22, he more than doubled the number of responses he got last year.

“It might reflect that the numbers (of homeless people) have gone up,” he said. “The numbers have been so off base. … I think this will be more representative.” The 2019 numbers will not be available for several months.

Stanley has been volunteering at the gathering place and attending community events focused around homelessness, including a series of community conversations about housing vulnerability at the library this fall, for the last few years. A former firefighter, Stanley was injured a few years ago and could not work; at the same time, his wife lost her job. They found themselves seeking refuge at Tedford’s family shelter for a few months. It was hard, he said, not being able to provide for his daughter the way they had been and were surrounded by a feeling of “loss of control of one’s own life.”

Now, back on his feet, working on the board of directors for Pine Tree Legal, a group that provides free civil legal aid in Maine, he is trying to give back to the community.

Stanly suggested that better mental health care, compassion and even volunteering are potential aids to stem the flow of homelessness in Maine, but that ultimately, he and many others have come to the same conclusion: “I don’t know the answer.”

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