Behind the barriers at a Portland homeless shelter

“If Governor LePage and his minions want to go after Mayor Brennan and his cohorts for financial mismanagement, so be it.

But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna watch quietly as the conversation- about homeless shelter occupants in Portland having upwards of 20 thousand dollars in liquid assets– shifts to fodder for the anti-welfare crowd as they screech about “leeches” and “able-bodied” and “lazy” people abusing the system for their own benefit.

Timothy Gill sits up reading the newspaper at 2:30 AM, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005, at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, Maine. Photo- Robert Bukaty.

Timothy Gill sits up reading the newspaper at 2:30 AM, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005, at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, Maine. Photo- Robert Bukaty.

People who stay at the homeless shelters in Portland do not do so out of luxury or comfort, they do so out of desperation.

The conversation should not be a back and forth between the city and the state, and it should not be a back and forth between a-holes from the right and those from the left with blinders on.

The fact is that Maine’s mental health system is in the crapper- that’s what the conversation should be about.

Portland’s social services are stretched to the brink because of it, to the point where disabled people with money aren’t even able to get their own cash in hand, or even have someone to help them access their funds.

Photo- Troy R. Bennett, BDN.

Photo- Troy R. Bennett, BDN.

That’s wrong, and it needs to be addressed by LePage, Brennan, Mary Mayhew, Justin Alfond, and every other person in Maine with the power to affect meaningful change- because they’re all responsible for the problem.

We need our elected officials to work together on solving the mental health crisis, the addiction crisis, and the housing crisis in Portland.

Instead we’re getting mudslinging and grandstanding.

Photo- Troy R. Bennett, BDN.

Photo- Troy R. Bennett, BDN.

Mainers deserve better, especially the folks that have found themselves in the role of pawns in this disgusting game being played by the powers that be.

It’s time to start demanding results.”

 That’s what I wrote on Friday afternoon before I began preparing for a visit to the Oxford Street homeless shelter.

I had spent the previous few days reaching out to as many currently and formerly homeless people that I could, asking them for advice on how best to achieve my goal of giving a firsthand glimpse at what it’s really like to stay at a homeless shelter in Portland.

Every single one of them told me I needed to go see it for myself.

Should I alert the staff that I’ll be coming?” I asked several times.

“Not if you want an authentic experience,” was the unanimous response.

So I made up my mind to discreetly observe what it’s like there. With the help of my confidants, I formed a loose plan to check-in as a new intake and just sort of hang out until I was given a “bed,” then leave.

My original thinking was that spending an entire night there would allow me to paint a truer picture than if I just spent a few hours there, but it was quickly brought to my attention that, while that might make for a good story, it would cause someone who truly needed the bed to be forced to go without that night- because the shelter is overflowed every night.

I knew that my plan might tick some of the shelter staff off- in part because they’re fiercely defensive of the privacy of the people they serve, and also because they’re habitually understaffed and overworked, so my presence amounted to two things for them: a violation of their media policy and an extra burden on an already burdensome winter night.

I also knew that my plan would include some very depressing and upsetting scenes, and that I was probably unprepared for some of it, and that I was scared.

“Don’t be a wuss, fear is good for you,” said one of my advisers.

“Shelter staff will get over it, just keep your head down and stay quiet,” said another.

“Just make sure you wash your clothes after you leave, that place is crawling with bed bugs.”

“And don’t get stabbed.”

I had been  told that the line just to get into the building could take as long as two hours to get through, so I bundled up in several layers and made my way over to Oxford Street.

The scene on Oxford Street outside the shelter.

The scene on Oxford Street outside the shelter.

When I arrived at the shelter people were shouting and bunching together in line. Across the street a police dog added to the confusion:

Staff was bringing people in three at a time, after about an hour I made it to the front.

There was a foot cleaning clinic being offered along with clean socks, each of which I declined. When I told the friendly woman behind the desk that I had never stayed there before she told me to go next door to the “day room,” where I needed to report in as a new intake.

The day room is a big, open room with lots of chairs and a big TV, along with a couple bathrooms off to the side.

I reported to the desk, where another kind woman gave me  piece of paper to write down my name and date of birth- which I gave truthfully. I was told that the person who deals with new intakes would be there at around 7:15 to help fill out paperwork.

“You’re fourth in line for new intakes tonight,” the woman said with a gentle smile, “if you don’t hear your name called by 8 then just head back to the first desk you went to and let them know that you’re still waiting.”

I went to the back of the room, sat down in an empty chair, and just waited.

Oxford St3

The scene was about what I had expected- people randomly having meltdowns, fighting over the bathroom, and lots of bags filled with collected empty bottles.

Something that took me by surprise though, was the look on people’s faces when Jeopardy came on. For a little while, some of the people there looked as though they felt normal, comfortable even, just by playing along to Jeopardy.

It made me think about all the things that I take for granted, all the simple things that add up to joy in life, and how empty one must feel when those moments of joy disappear.

Shortly after that, I was spoken to by a staff member who had been alerted of my presence. I wasn’t told how I had been recognized, but I was treated respectfully.

It was made clear that if I did in fact need shelter for the night then I could stay, but if I was just there as a journalist then I would need to leave.

I left frustrated, but with no ill will towards anyone at the shelter. They were just doing their jobs after all, and from what I could see they were working very hard and doing it with patience, respect, and kindness.

My frustration lies with the state of the mental health system in general, and with the toxic political climate that keeps any real progress from being made.

Following my abbreviated visit to the shelter, an impulsive status update on Facebook briefly describing the experience led to a lively comments thread, which my younger brother, Ben, uncharacteristically chimed in on.

Ben has struggled with alcoholism since we were teenagers, and was first homeless at the age of 19.

I’ve dealt with my own personal struggles, but they’ve been child’s play compared to some of the demons that Ben has faced and the obstacles that he’s overcome.

He’s stayed at the shelter in the past, lived on the streets for a while, and nearly killed himself with booze on more than a few occasions.

He’s bounced back, and is doing better than I can ever remember him doing in his adult life, but his difficult experiences have left an indelible mark on his memory.

Here is the short version of his story, in his own words:

“I want to start off by introducing myself, my name is Ben Shorr, I’m 29 years old, and I am from Portland, Maine.


My older brother Chris asked if I would feel comfortable sharing my experiences with homelessness. I said that of course I would, because I am not ashamed.

If all of our failures in life were make or break, sure, I wouldn’t be here, and most of us wouldn’t. To be clear, I would not trade away my struggles for anything.

Anyways, the circumstances that lead me to staying in the shelter, which I consider to be about as low as I could go before fully throwing in the cards, aren’t that important.

All I can say is I had chances to improve my situation prior to that, and for whatever reason, I didn’t.

The bottom line, in my mind, about the shelters in Portland, is that they are the last resort for people with few to no options.

I mean, at the end of the day, there are always other options. I am of the opinion that no matter how crushed a person’s psyche, the human spirit fights for survival. Just, sometimes, regularly, too often, that fight is lost.

Staying in the shelter is not easy. Sickness runs rampant.

The top floor of Oxford Street Shelter. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The top floor of Oxford Street Shelter. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

When you consider that the majority of people there are not receiving regular, if any, medical attention, and the floor mats that are the equivalent of a comforter on concrete are aligned just inches apart on either side, it is a no-brainer that the healthy are becoming sick there, and the sick are getting sicker.

Bed bugs are also a huge issue.


I was in and out of there in the summer, when sleeping outside was an option most nights, which I typically opted for.

I can’t imagine being there in the winter, because your whole life, day and night, must become about finding shelter. Fear of being in the same situation in the cold months was my main incentive for seeking help for my other issues, largely, addiction.

Thanks to fellow down-and-outs who had nothing to gain from my existence or lack of one, and a handful of saints disguised as former addicts working at the Milestone Foundation, I was able to find the help that I needed.

Having people who gave a shit about me when I was struggling to care about my own self, it was explained to me in the simplest terms that I needed- I was told that at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center I would have food, and I would have a bed, and a place to keep my belongings.

At that point in time, I had been living so dirty, so unsafe, and so uncomfortable, all I wanted in the entire world was to lay in a bed.

I feel like that must sound crazy, but that’s the main thing that I wanted, just to lay in a bed, close my eyes, and know that I was safe. It was enough to get me- a chronic alcoholic- to stop drinking.

Part of the stipulations for staying at the ARC are that you stay sober, and work for your food and shelter. I could go on and on about the ins and outs of the program, but I’m not going to.

The main lesson I learned there can be summed up by a quote from the late Allen Brown, a man who volunteered his time selflessly.

As I got sober, I realized that I had a lot of problems. Allen used to always say, “If we don’t make changes, nothing changes.”

So I decided that in my free time I would go to meetings for addiction. I learned how complicated it is to find mental health counseling, but that there are people out there willing to help with maneuvering through the bureaucratic process of accessing health care- but it’s still a struggle.

 Through counseling, I began to learn ways to deal with my ADHD, PTSD and depression without narcotic medicine. I made changes, with the help of caring, loving individuals.

And my life changed.

The reality is that I am in the vast minority of people able to find their way out of the situation I was in.

If the chain of events and my level of desperation to improve my life at any cost had been any different, I’m right back there in the shelter, or worse.

Honestly, although I did feel the need to climb out of such bad times in order to prove wrong all the people who looked down on me, the reality is that without those rare individuals who treated me as an equal, and showed me love when I had nothing but fear, anger, resentment, despair, and helplessness, there’s no way I would have found the strength to actually stand up and change.

I do not have a target audience for this article. Essentially, my target audience is everyone. The goal of my message is compassion over selfishness. If you took the time to read this, thank you.”

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.