Amber Lesperance, 34, at a Portland encampment she shares with other people who are homeless. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dozens of tents line the Fore River Parkway Trail, the space between them piled with stray bikes, wooden pallets, trash and abandoned furniture. A park & ride lot on Marginal Way contains more tents, blankets and clothes hanging on a fence separating the parking lot from Interstate 295.

At Deering Oaks, tents crowd the space between a baseball field and a highway exit. Tarps are draped over the tents to keep them dry in a rainy summer. Shopping carts overflow with the campers’ belongings.

It’s a similar scene at Harbor View Memorial Park, where tents line the hill leading up to the Casco Bay Bridge.

Across Portland and numerous other Maine communities, homelessness has grown far more visible since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s annual Point in Time Survey, conducted in January, found 4,258 homeless people in Maine, up from 1,297 in 2020 – though the new number adds populations that were not previously counted, including those in transitional housing and staying in hotels funded by General Assistance and federal emergency relief programs.

Portland now provides shelter to about 850 people each night. Its new homeless services center has been full since it opened in March, and many people are living outside, scattered around the city, in at least 238 tents.


As encampments have proliferated, the city has worked to balance the needs of those without housing with the frustrations of other city residents. And it has tried to respond more compassionately, with a new Encampment Crisis Response Team that aims to offer shelter or housing to people in encampments before clearing the encampments away.

The Press Herald asked seven people living on the streets this summer to share their stories of how they became homeless. This is what they had to say.

j Rancourt

j Rancourt, 49, says he’s been homeless almost his entire adult life. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, j Rancourt was living in an apartment in Gardiner. But he soon lost access to the help that made his life there work: the in-person appointments with his therapist and his community integration specialist, who helped him navigate daily tasks like grocery shopping.

“Things went kind of haywire for me without the support,” said Rancourt, who said he is disabled and has been diagnosed with depression, generalized anxiety disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Rancourt says he’s been “housing challenged pretty much almost my whole adult life.” After he became homeless in November 2020, he headed to Portland.

He’d lived in the city before, but now slept on the street and in the Oxford Street Shelter.


In April 2021, he was placed in a hotel room in South Portland, paid for with General Assistance. He stayed there for over a year.

“I was so thankful,” Rancourt said. “When we got booted, I wasn’t even upset. … I was just thankful. I hope we don’t experience anything like that again, but it was a positive thing for homeless people during the pandemic that we were housed well.”

This spring, Rancourt stayed for a few weeks at the city’s new homeless services center. But he decided to leave after he spent a whole monthly disability check on lottery tickets, he said.

In late June, he was camping on state property near the highway.

“The shelter’s beautiful,” Rancourt said. “It’s really quite nice. But I’m such an idiot. … I felt so guilty. I said, ‘I don’t deserve to go back to the shelter.’ So I elected to be out here as sort of self-enforced punishment.”

Rancourt, who is 49, said he’s struggled with gambling his whole life. He learned to play poker at 5. When he was 10, his family moved from Maine to Las Vegas. He started visiting casinos as a teenager.


He said he’s had a variety of jobs, mostly in customer service, but hasn’t worked since 2015.

“Medical professionals do recognize gambling addiction,” Rancourt said. “They lump it in with like substance use disorder. But it’s not as evident. If you’re a heroin addict, it’s sort of clear you are and there’s all sorts of help. For people with my disorder, there’s not a whole bunch of help.”

Rancourt used to drink. He repeatedly got charged during those years with misdemeanors for drinking in public, operating under the influence and theft.

He’s been sober for a few years now, he said, and is in the process of rebuilding his support structure.

And he recently got a payee, someone who will manage his money and keep him from gambling it away.

“That’s a huge step for me,” he said. “I feel a lot more hope having that.”


Nikki Cassetta

Nikki Cassetta, 41, cries as she describes the death of her son by suicide. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Nikki Cassetta has been homeless for six months, but her troubles started long before.

Her mother was a cocaine addict, she says, and she didn’t get a lot of parenting.

Cassetta was born in Millinocket and lived in Lincoln until the age of 5, when her mother and stepfather decided to move her family to Texas. By the time she was 11, she was in a gang. When she was 16, her parents sent her back to Maine to live with an aunt because of a turf war.

She fell in love and married at 17, moving around the country with her husband in the military. They had one son but divorced because he cheated, Cassetta said.

She said she used to have a career in telecommunications – she once earned a decent salary that paid for a three-bedroom townhouse. But she was fired 11 years ago – wrongfully, she said, for letting her son on an office computer at work.

Cassetta later had two other children with a boyfriend. They had problems, she said, when the kids were young, but she thought they would work through them. She said she was shocked one day when she came home from work to find that he’d left with the kids.


The last time she saw her two youngest children – Dominic and Melina – was in December 2012, she said. She doesn’t know where they are but assumes they might be in Greenville, South Carolina, where she lived with her boyfriend before they moved back to Maine.

For eight years after she became pregnant with her second son, she was sober, she said. “But I’ve been going on a downward spiral ever since (the boyfriend left with the kids).”

Her oldest son, Calogero, who lived with his father, died by suicide in January 2019.

“I can’t come out of this hole. It’s like a black hole,” Cassetta said.

Cassetta, who is 41, is a daily heroin user, though she said she also visits a methadone clinic and hopes to get sober again.

She has post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, she said: “I’m on medication for all three of these.” From 2019 to 2020, she got disability payments, she said, but she no longer does. She said she has a lawyer trying to get the payments reinstated.


In June, Cassetta said, she had a housing voucher and was hoping to find an apartment. But she has a new case manager now and she’s not sure if the voucher is still valid.

Cassetta said she’s been raped more than once, starting when she was young in Texas. She was robbed and raped in her apartment in Portland – when she still had one. But she didn’t report it to police, she said, because she had a warrant for unpaid restitution.

The last time she tried to hold down a job was last year, at a car wash.

“It just didn’t work,” she said on a recent afternoon, as she sat on a blanket outside the tent she shares with her boyfriend, Edward Stewart. “I went off on a customer. I stole from them. I sabotaged it. That’s what I do. That’s how I came here.”

Cassetta said she is on waitlists for some private shelters. She doesn’t want to go to the city’s shelter because she thinks she would get in a fight there.

Living outside, she said, it’s hard to find clean water and food, and she longs for a comforter and pillows.


“I would love for us to get an apartment, get sober and do something with our lives, which I know I can do because I’ve done it,” Cassetta said. “I’ve been at the top, I’ve been at the middle and I’ve been at the lowest. So I know it can be done.”

Edward Stewart

Edward Stewart, 34, said he dropped out of high school to work as a commercial fisherman in Portland, but began using drugs. He said he was young and didn’t know how to manage money. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Edward Stewart has been on his own since he was a teenager. His mother died when he was 14, and at 16, he dropped out of high school to work as a commercial fisherman in Portland – a job he got into because he had relatives on both sides of his family who did it.

After his mother died, Stewart said, he lived on his own and would rent hotel rooms for a few nights at a time between fishing trips.

An only child, he never got along with his father, who left him and remarried after his mother’s death. At 16, he moved in with a family friend in Falmouth.

The fishing was lucrative. Stewart worked his way up to making $120,000 per year, he said, but he was young and didn’t know how to manage money.

“I partied like the Beatles,” he said. “You know what I’m saying? I’d blow through $8,000 in three days, show back up at the boat and would have to borrow money for cigarettes or coffee because I was a mess.”


Stewart started using drugs for fun with a friend who was in a car crash and had Vicodin. He also used drugs to cope with the physical stress of his job, and because it was something his coworkers did. The partying led to crashing a stolen car one summer on the Fourth of July on Long Island. He got kicked out of the family friend’s house for selling drugs.

He was on probation when his girlfriend at the time became pregnant with twins. They planned to buy a house in Raymond with Stewart’s savings from fishing and an inheritance from his grandmother, he said.

He was out fishing when his girlfriend called to say she’d had a miscarriage.

“After I found out we lost the kids, I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “I almost jumped overboard.”

Stewart said the loss sent him into a downward spiral. He started using drugs again after a period of sobriety. He and his girlfriend broke up. He stopped fishing. He was living on the street.

Stewart said he’s lived in numerous apartments, but he got kicked out of some of them for partying. The most recent apartment he had was in North Deering. It wasn’t great, Stewart said, with its broken toilet, lack of bathroom door and cockroaches.


He said he complained about those issues, and his landlord not only wouldn’t fix them but evicted him. He was supposed to go to court to fight the eviction but missed the court date. “It was just the drug lifestyle,” Stewart said “I was (expletive) up.”

In the apartment complex, he had met and started seeing a woman, Nikki Cassetta. When he was evicted, he moved in with her.

Edward Stewart and Nikki Cassetta.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Late last year, he was arrested for drug possession. She had money to bail him out, he said, but was robbed by people who heard she was home alone with cash in hand.

Cassetta said they later lost her apartment because the landlord wanted to rent it to someone else and wouldn’t renew her lease.

When Stewart finally did make bail, he went to live with Cassetta and her brother at her brother’s house in Buxton. But Stewart said he and Cassetta were frustrated living so far away from Portland without transportation, which made it hard for him to get a job or meet with his lawyer. Plus he didn’t get along with Cassetta’s brother.

“I’d rather do my own thing,” he said.


Over the summer, he and Cassetta have camped out in at least two different locations in Portland.

“We’re trying to get our feet underneath us,” Stewart said.

Amber Lesperance

Amber Lesperance, 34, says the pandemic destroyed her life by shutting down the detox program she attended. When she relapsed, she was evicted from the sober living home where she was staying. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Amber Lesperance was in recovery when her mother died of lung cancer in 2017. It crushed her and, after two years clean, sent her back to cocaine and heroin.

She lost custody of her sons – taken by the state, she said, after her relapse. She moved to Florida and stayed off drugs for several weeks before she relapsed again.

Back in Maine, she went to a detox program and then a sober living home. She was doing great until COVID-19 hit, she said.

“COVID destroyed my life, along with anybody around me,” said Lesperance, who is 34. “It shut down the city of Portland. I’m from a small town. I didn’t know anyone out here and had no resources other than meetings.


“The sober living home I was in, that started to become not so sober because everything was shutting down. We didn’t have the support. We had nothing.”

Lesperance had never been homeless before. When she relapsed at the sober living home, she asked for help, and staff brought her to the hospital. When she got back to the home, she found an eviction notice on her door.

“Instead of fighting it, I grabbed a tent and was camping,” she said.

Before 2020, Lesperance said, she had always been able to maintain housing, even through years of addiction.

Her parents, both drug users, split up when she was 4, and she spent most of her childhood between their homes in Springvale and Acton.

Her father died when she was 21. For much of her childhood, her mom had an abusive boyfriend who beat Lesperance and her siblings, she said. Drugs and alcohol were always the priority.


“It wasn’t until I started having kids that me and my mom even got close,” Lesperance said. “She just wasn’t there for me as a kid, and my dad’s only way of being there was to get high. The first person I did any drugs with was my dad.” She was 14.

Lesperance called her drug use “a constant battle.”

“I’ve gone through IOPs (intensive outpatient programs), rehab, detox. They always ask, ‘What is your drug of choice?’ My drug of choice is anything that makes me forget.”

When the pandemic started, she lost her job at Walmart in Scarborough. She picked up some work at a Dollar Tree in Portland but got laid off.

When she started camping, Lesperance began seeing a man she got to know through mutual friends and because they were hanging out in the same spots. He became abusive, but he had experience living on the streets and she felt she needed to stay with him because she didn’t know how to be homeless.

“I lost all self-worth,” Lesperance said. “I had never felt so alone.”


She started selling drugs and picked up a felony for possession.

“Living out here like this, you can’t stay clean if you’re an addict,” Lesperance said. “It’s near impossible. And then once you’re using you have to stay using. So then you get the stealing, the robbing, the shoplifting. … To live like this sober would be near impossible, so for everyone who’s out here and continuing to gain a criminal record, it’s not that any of us want to. I didn’t want to sell drugs.”

This spring, Lesperance spent close to three months in a shelter, but she was kicked out after getting in a fight with a woman who made a comment about her kids. As of early August, she was staying in a tent at one of the encampments.

It’s hard being away from the shelter conveniences – like showers and a flush toilet – but Lesperance said she’s found community at the encampment while she looks for permanent housing.

“I get open arms down here regardless of whether I have money, regardless of whether I have drugs, regardless of whether I have anything,” she said. “We’re family.”

Allan Hill

Allan Hill, 39, who is blind, at his campsite along Marginal Way in Portland. He and his his wife, Christy, were kicked out of a hotel during the COVID pandemic after Allan was deemed a liability.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Allan and Christy Hill got the notice from their landlord two years ago. Their Saco apartment was going to be condemned, and they would have to move out.


They went to stay with her dad in Lebanon before moving into a hotel with federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds.

The couple bounced around to different hotels for a year and a half during the COVID-19 pandemic – until this past winter, when one kicked them out, they said, on the grounds that Allan, who is blind, was a liability when outside alone.

“I was pacing back and forth because I found out some bad news about my family,” Allan said about the incident that prompted the eviction. “There was nothing there to fall on or trip on.”

Since then, the couple has been living in tents in Biddeford and Portland, including at the encampment at the Maine Department of Transportation’s park & ride on Marginal Way. “It’s hard,” said Allan. They recently had their cellphone and tablet stolen.

Christy, who used to work at a sandwich shop in Biddeford, hasn’t been working because she said she can’t leave her husband alone. “This is the longest I’ve been without a job, and I don’t like it,” she said. “But I can’t just go to work and leave him. There’s no one around to help him.”

Allan, who is 39, lost his eyesight 17 years ago after an infection he got when he was stabbed in a fight spread to his eyes.


“At home, I knew where everything was. I could walk to the bathroom, walk to the shower. Here, I can’t make it 10 feet down the road,” he said. The busy roadways nearby are dangerous for him: Marginal Way, Interstate 295.

The couple said they’ve been trying to get into a private shelter where they can stay together. Once they have permanent housing, they hope to reconnect with their 4-year-old daughter, who has been in foster care since they lost their apartment.

Being on the street is hard.

“I’ve never seen so much ignorance, I guess you could say,” Allan said. “Everyone is homeless. You’d think they would look out for each other. It’s not like that. People steal. They try to take whatever they can from you no matter what way you turn.”

James Spanos

James Spanos, 59, at Congress Square Park in Portland. A motorcycle crash caused a brain injury and made it difficult for him to work.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

James Spanos has been homeless for about a year and a half, since he left a hospital 18 months after a motorcycle crash in New Hampshire. 

While he was hospitalized, he says, a relative stole his insurance and Social Security money.


“I was just in the hospital. I lost a lot of things, and (she) took a lot of things,” said Spanos, who is 59.

The crash caused a brain injury that put him in a coma for a month and a half. After he came to, doctors declared him incompetent, he said. Leg injuries make it difficult to walk or go back to work in construction.

And the incompetency ruling prevents him from getting a driver’s license.

After he left the hospital, Spanos said, he got in a fight with the relative who took his money and belongings. He wanted to get away so he headed to Portland from Dover, New Hampshire, because it was the “closest, biggest, easiest, more mellow place.”

He slept in a shelter for a little bit, but he said he was kicked out for confronting someone he believed had stolen his phone.

Of life in the shelter, he said, “It’s good and bad. It’s good to get in and have a place to take a shower and all that, but they don’t do anything about stealing or anything else. There are fights. They don’t do anything but kick you out for a few days.”


Spanos said he would rather sleep outside for now – though that’s not easy either. Homeless people frequently are forced to move camps, and there aren’t many places to take showers, he said.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Spanos said. “As long as you don’t do stupid stuff, you’re all right – but outside of that, it’s a pain in the butt.”

Mona Miller

Mona Miller, 40, near her campsite at Harbor View Memorial Park in Portland. She has been living mainly outdoors since early 2020, and says addiction has always been part of her story. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mona Miller became homeless more than four years ago when she got kicked out of the apartment she was subletting.

She got in a fight with her boyfriend soon after, was charged with domestic violence, broke probation and went to jail for six months.

She got out just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and said she found very little help available.

“Essentially what it boils down to is, I got back on drugs after 15 years of sobriety, and I ended up not paying bills and taking care of life, and I ended up on the streets,” she said.


Since early 2020, Miller, who is 40, has been living outside, usually in tents, spending the occasional night staying with friends.

Her family moved to Maine from Indiana when she was around 7. She grew up in Portland and Westbrook and says addiction has always been part of her story.

Her mother used drugs while pregnant, she said. And she started drinking at a young age, in part to deal with the stress of moving to a new place, with kids in Maine who made fun of her Midwestern accent and her name.

“I started drinking primarily because I wanted to fit in and I didn’t want to feel anxious,” she said. Drugs followed. She sometimes broke away for years at a time, but a bad breakup with the father of her two children led to her most recent relapse.

Her drug use – of heroin and meth – lost her the apartment, where she’d been living with her brother.

“We had a lot of late-night traffic and stuff like that from being addicts, so the landlord took it back by writ of possession,” Miller said.


On the streets, Miller racked up charges: for burglary, theft, drug possession, criminal threatening.

At one point, she entered a private home to steal basic supplies like clothes and a headlamp. A friend she was with stole money and jewelry, she said, and Miller – who wouldn’t tell police the friend’s name – was charged with a felony for the theft.

When you’re homeless, it’s easy to get nabbed for drug possession, Miller said: “If you had a place to live, you probably wouldn’t have to worry so much about getting caught in public with drugs on you.”

She’s had better moments.

“I have three kids, and at one point, I was a stay-at-home mom who volunteered in the school system,” she said. “I never thought I would see myself sleeping on the sidewalk.”

Miller said she gave up one of her children for adoption, and the other two live with their father in East Millinocket.

“I was recently undergoing a court case with that, but it was too difficult to try and maintain stability and fight for custodial rights,” she said. “They’re happy and they’re OK. … I know they’re safe, and that’s all that matters.”

Outside her tent at Harbor View Memorial Park in late June, Miller said she’d been working with her doctors, visiting a methadone clinic daily and trying to stay sober.

“Being on probation helps keep me straight and out of trouble,” she said. “I’m just trying to find a way to get back into normal life. I don’t even know what that looks like anymore.”

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