It was the spring of 1988, and I was proof that Portland was once a city with room for everyone.

Returning from out of state after six months away, I rented a room at the YWCA on Spring Street, and found work to provide for my basic expenses while I figured out the next step in my life.

I was only in my 20s but had been struggling with serious health issues for years; still, I managed to keep my head above water. This time, though, I was brought low by an entrenched case of mononucleosis, missed by the doctor I went to the previous winter for unusual fatigue. I passed out at work and was taken to Maine Medical Center.

The YWCA building at 87 Spring St. in Portland in 2006. John Ewing/Staff Photographer, File

Quickly sizing up my situation, the attending doctor contacted DHS, where I was assigned a caseworker. The city arranged to pay my rent at the YWCA, and to pay for the health care I would need to get well. I was provided with food stamps, and a small stipend.

The YWCA homed other women in need of a haven and help, and the staff met us where we were at with sensitivity and respect. I remember a woman who never talked to anyone and refused a room but accepted a couch in a lounge area, to sleep upon after her day on the streets; I remember a young fellow resident, caught shoplifting, who wept when a staff associate asked her to please come to her if she needed something, and quietly slipped her money.

It is hard to speak to what it meant to me, that during this difficult time I could simply be a person like any other person, and blend in seamlessly with the life of the city. I could walk to the library, sit on a bench in the sun and people watch, I could go to the Portland Museum of Art on their weekly free evening. No one was the wiser that but for the help I was being given, I would have been homeless.

It is hard to speak, too, to what it was like to discover there were people who had my back, who treated me with a matter-of-fact respect, never judging, only quietly supportive. Growing up in an abusive home, I had no understanding of the deep loneliness I carried within; it was simply my normal, not to be questioned.

Portland was where I began to learn what it was like to be a member of a community, valued not for status or power or money, but simply for myself. The help I was given and the faith implicit in that help were transformative; I learned to value what I could give.

The YWCA is long gone now; the haven has been replaced by a small park. Nothing remains to remind people of what was given so generously, or the lives touched, and the lives perhaps saved, including mine.

But there is memory. I remember everything. And I will never forget.


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