Suzanne Flood is used to recognizing who young people are wherever she goes. Her job depends on it.
So when a young man approached her as she nibbled on a taco during a recent lunch break, Flood hesitated for only a moment before realization dawned. She knew his face.
“He used to be this big pothead; he was sleeping on the street and under bridges,” the 39-year-old outreach worker recalled recently at the Shaw House, a Greater Bangor homeless shelter for youth that has been her employer for the last six years.
Not long ago the once-homeless young man sought Flood’s help. Now he was on his own, working a steady job and trying to set his life in drug-free motion.
“I just was sitting there, and he came over and said, ‘I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while that what you did for me back then, it really helped.'”
“That’s all I needed,” she concluded. “If I help one kid, then I’m happy.”
One kid at a time might well be the motto for Streetlight, one of six programs the Shaw House offers and perhaps its most overlooked. From its hub within the basement of an old brick building on lower Union Street, Streetlight shines its beacon into the darkest places of eastern Maine for the area’s homeless and nearly homeless youths.
With an on-the-streets approach, Flood and her Streetlight co-workers, Sarah Shaafi, Chris Betts and Stormi Ames, are more in touch with homeless youth than any other service agency in the area.
And there are a lot of them.
Over a recent 30-day period, the Streetlight staff counted as many as 70 homeless youths aged 15-24 in the Bangor area.
Those numbers confirm a disturbing fact that far too many young people are on the streets and the numbers often don’t tell the whole story.
“If they stay at their parents’ house one day a week or if they stay with friends, they’re not considered homeless,” said Betts, 27, who has been at the Shaw House since he graduated college five yearsago. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t need our help.”
“A lot of these kids need many different resources, and it’s not all under one roof,” Shaafi, 38, said. “Our job is to link them to all these places.”
Flood summed it up another way.
“A lot of times we meet their basic needs, and then we push them off to get their needs met elsewhere, only we keep in contact to make sure they’re on the right path,” she said. “Who else is going to do it?”
But more than a link to critical services, Streetlight is a moral backbone for the youths whose backgrounds haven’t taught them basic skills.
“This is a different population, a sad population,” Flood said. “These are the throwaway kids.”
A different approach
The day that Travis Anderson turned 18, he was told rather bluntly to leave the Shaw House where he had spent the past two years trying to turn his life around.
No teary goodbyes. No words of wisdom. Just the door.
“They asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and before I could answer, they closed the door in my face,” Anderson, now 20, recalled recently from the kitchen of Shaw House.
“That really was the best way to do it, too. It makes you figure out what you really want.”
Anderson is one of a growing number of young adults in the Bangor area who have faced homelessness at one time or another, and he is plenty familiar with Streetlight’s unorthodox approach.
“The way I see it, they try to help you by getting to know you rather than just showing you what kind of help is available,” Anderson said.
“They see, what’s that word?” he called into the next room, making sure the Streetlight staff heard him before he overemphasized the next word: “Potential.”
Streetlight has been around since the late 1990s and, like each of the six programs offered through the Shaw House, is funded through a variety of sources.
The money for each program comes from a larger pool for the entire agency. A majority of the funding comes from federal and state sources as varied as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services and even the state Department of Corrections.
Additional funding comes in the form of grants and charitable gifts, but that money isn’t guaranteed. Like many other service agencies, Streetlight’s resource cupboard is often bare.
Rather than rest on those shortcomings, though, the staff takes what little it has to the streets.
Every spring when the weather warms, the staff loads a van with various items such as food, clothing, condoms, housing and job applications and spends the days contacting the many youths who need their help.
On a recent weekday, Flood and Ames departed from the Shaw House in the van. They were going to pick up a young man, Curtis, and take him to an appointment with a counselor.
Curtis, a 19-year-old with long blond hair and a shy demeanor, listened to headphones as the van pulled over to pick him up. He sucked on a lollipop, a habit he picked up recently after he quit smoking.
As Ames maneuvered the van away from the curb, Flood bantered with Curtis.
The conversation was casual at first. Flood put Curtis at ease in seconds and then offered a reminder of the services she can provide. “You know, we can get you a bus pass,” she said.
Curtis, evidently embarrassed at the idea of the handout, nodded his head and smiled meekly.
A casual relationship that relies on trust, Streetlight staff knows full well that some young adults will abuse the situation.
“It’s not purposeful,” Shaafi said. “It’s the way some kids survive.”
Every Monday night, like nomads, the kids walk up First Street in small groups toward the Shaw House. In the wintertime, the slushy, snow-covered roads make the going difficult, but they smile. They’re going to a place where things feel familiar, where faces look familiar.
On Monday nights, the Shaw House opens its doors to all. It’s the one day a week that everyone can gather in one place and a great way for Streetlight to check in, Flood said on a recent Monday.
“If we have food, that’s important. It tends to be a good icebreaker,” she said.
As young men and women filtered in slowly, Shaafi remarked to one shy male who appeared chemically impaired, “I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
The young man looked at her with glazed, sad eyes. He didn’t need words to explain why Shaafi hadn’t seen him in weeks.
On the other side of the room, a young woman named Michelle but who goes by Mouze was doling out hugs to everyone who wanted one. When she got to Flood, the outreach worker declared, “I don’t do hugs,” but then followed it up with a warm smile.
Flood later explained that setting boundaries is a constant struggle in her job.
About 35 young men and women showed up on this night, ranging from teenage mothers to aspiring rappers with drug habits. On any given week, the numbers fluctuate, but anyone curious as to whether homelessness in Bangor is a problem need only spend a Monday night at the Shaw House.
Mouze, who was through with her hug-fest and was now seated in a chair nibbling on a piece of cheese pizza, said homelessness has “overrun” Bangor, although most people don’t notice.
“You have to be down within it,” she said.
The young woman has spent the last two years bouncing around and “couch-surfing.” Her mother kicked her out when she was 16, and she didn’t have other options.
“It was very unhealthy,” she said. “I was mixed up with a lot of bad things, a lot of bad people.”
She admitted that her current situation isn’t much better, but “I work daily at bettering myself,” she said with a somber smile. On this Monday night, Mouze put aside whatever problem was plaguing her. She wouldn’t let herself be sad. She was among friends.
“This is the best thing,” she said of Streetlight. “A lot of the [homeless] youth around here don’t have anywhere to turn.”
Travis Anderson ended up as a Shaw House resident at age 16. By his own admission, he was “young and dumb” and “tried to push my limits as much as I could,” he said.
His story is like many others: A sour relationship with his parents, drug problems, a lack of discipline. He nearly went to jail for stripping cars and selling the parts but said a friend took the rap.
“Basically, I didn’t like rules and I decided to leave,” he said. “At the time you think: ‘This is great to be able to do what you want.’
“I thought it would be more freedom, but it wasn’t fun.”
Ashley Zook, 20, had less control over her situation. She was in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services by the time she was 7 and ended up at the Shaw House at age 15. She now lives in an apartment that Streetlight helped arrange. She could walk to her job as a clerk at a downtown market.
Zook said her job is fine, but she has bigger goals.
“There are always jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s, but I don’t want to do that,” she said, pausing for a moment as though she wasn’t sure if she believed the next part. “I can do better.”
The Streetlight staff has worked with Anderson, Zook and many others toward self-sufficiency, but it hasn’t always been easy and that perhaps is the most difficult caveat of Streetlight’s daily grind.
“The hardest part is keeping your expectations at a level where you constantly have hope for them, but you’re not setting yourself up to feel as though you’ve failed,” Betts said.
There is no set of guidelines, no doctrine of success to use a measuring stick, so progress is not easy to quantify.
“When I first started, it was very difficult,” Ames, 28, a Bucksport native and the Streetlight rookie, said. She joined the staff last June after working for about five years in the shelter portion of the Shaw House. “I was very disillusioned that things were always going to work out. It’s not like that.”
“You have to measure it in small ways, and sometimes people still don’t understand that.”
In reality, some make it, some don’t, and it’s hard when they fall. The Streetlight staff found out recently that Anderson was indicted by a Penobscot County grand jury on robbery and burglary charges. He has since pleaded guilty and been sentenced to 15 years in prison with all but six suspended.
Flood took the news in stride; she’s heard it all before.
“Sometimes you have to compare these kids to toddlers,” she said. “They take a couple of steps and then they fall, and you either help them back up or they get themselves back up.
“Maybe they won’t take another step for a while. Maybe they’ll start crawling again,” Flood said, “but eventually they will take another step.”
The Streetlight staff readily acknowledges that many of the youths they deal with have drug problems, mental health problems and sometimes both. Others have just been dealt a bad hand.
“With the kids that have more human traits but their situation is just sad, yeah, I want to take them all home and feed them milk and cookies,” Flood said.
When she was 18, Ashley Zook could no longer stay at the Shaw House, yet the thought of staying at an adult homeless shelter scared her to death. For a few months, her own apartment became a “flophouse” for other area homeless.
“A lot of us can’t do it ourselves, but we still try to reject [Streetlight],” Zook said. “We don’t want to admit that we need help.”
“We think it’s too hard,” she continued. “Some of the stuff that happens, you can’t lead a normal life. Some of us, we like it on the streets.”
Streetlight’s perpetual goal is to change that attitude, but because the staff is only four people and the number of homeless youths seems to increase every day, Betts said there is a tiny window of opportunity to change lives.
“We have such a small influence on them. We might see them for only an hour of one week. That’s pretty hard to change somebody,” Betts said. “We’re always planting seeds, and hopefully some of those might sprout.
“And we look back at those instances and think, ‘Boy, did we really help that much? All we did was give them a snack bag and check in on them,'” he laughed.
Ames said she needs to believe that what she does is helping.
“For me, it’s the little things, like seeing someone who never had a job holding a job,” Ames said. “It’s like they’re growing up and in some way we have helped them with that.”
Zook said the help is there for those who embrace it.
“They are what Bangor has for 18- to 24-year-olds,” she said of Streetlight’s sometimes relentless and often overworked staff. “They won’t let you keep struggling. If there is anything they can do, they’ll do it.”
While its funding is not easy to secure every year, the Streetlight staff continues going about its business of helping one youth at a time.
Flood said her dream is to get grant funding to create a homeless shelter strictly for 18- to 24-year-olds.
“It would be nice to have all the resources in one place,” she said, hopeful but realistic.
“I’ve been here six years and nothing has happened, but I’m going to ask every day from now until I get it,” Flood continued with a determined grin, her voice dead serious. “I’m not going to give up.”