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Jess’ Story


he attendant at the drive thru is a teenage schoolgirl with a big smile and a warm welcome, sporting the latest fashions from GAP, Hollister, Abercrombie, or American Eagle. She is impeccably turned out, not a hair out of place. You order a coffee, medium with cream and one sugar then decide to go for a bagel with egg and bacon. The young server chats away about the weather as she gets your order ready. She may be thinking about what she is going to buy at the mall when she gets off shift, perhaps a boyfriend will pick her up and they will go to the movies with friends. This is the early shift and she shivers as the cold Maine air blows into the serving window. She straightens her back and takes the next order with the same upbeat energetic manner.

As you pull out to negotiate the traffic you are unaware that you have just come face to face with homelessness. The young lady who served you is homeless. Left to find her way on the streets since the ripe old age of 15.

The face of homelessness is changing. Gone are the days when the sight of an old man with unkempt hair, a scraggy beard, and a piece of rope to hold up his pants was the telltale sign of homelessness. These days you are just as likely to come face to face with homelessness as you pick up a coffee at the drive thru window. Homelessness can be seen coming off school buses or wandering around the shopping mall, hanging out with your children.

The attendant’s name is Jess. She is 18 years old and has been homeless since she was 15. Living day to day on the streets not knowing where she was going to lay down her head for the night, “I spent all summer walking around town looking for a place to stay, ” said Jess. There is a sense of confidence beyond her years that is evident when you spend any time around Jess, there is a determination that has seen her overcome hardships and barriers that would see most adults falter. There is also sadness when she tells her story and shares her experiences living on the streets in an emotionless matter of fact monotone. A story of a lost childhood, children living on the streets grow up real quick.

This is the new face of homelessness. No longer the realm of disabled war veterans and the mentally handicapped that have fallen through the gaps of social services. Societies weakest have a new look. Today’s castaways now include the most vulnerable, our children. Their ages can range any where from 13 to 21. They are the kids next door.

Jess is not alone in the State of Maine; according to The State of Maine’s Children’s Cabinet there were 1141 children without a home in 2006. The statistics are even more shocking across the country with national organizations like Homeless Youth Among Us.Org quoting over a million children in the US living on the streets or couch surfing on any given day.

Organizations like The Shaw House, a local nonprofit homeless shelter try to come to terms with this population of homeless children, “We see kids with mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and criminal histories as often as we see kids without any of that list. Likewise, we see kids whose parents have mental health issues, substance abuse issues or criminal histories as frequently as we see kids whose parents don’t.” said Caseworker Judy Dembowski.

In Jess’s case it was the break-up of her parents marriage that caused her world to turn upside down and marked the beginning or a personal nightmare full of fear, pain, and a sense of loneliness that never seems to go away.

Its tough when your parents split up and you are only 12 years old. Its even harder when they meet other people and you get caught in all the changes, moving states and getting left behind with no place to call home. Jess stayed with an older brother for a while but he couldn’t manage to keep an apartment so Jess was on her own again. She started couch hopping, a term many homeless use to describe sleeping on floors, couches or a spare cot if they are lucky. Jess tried to maintain her studies and keep up her attendance in school despite her lack of a stable environment, “its hard enough to live your life day to day but when you add school to the mix it becomes impossible” she said. It was difficult to keep on track and in her sophomore year she was confronted with another hurdle, this one a threat to her physical well-being. The year she ended up on the streets was the same year she discovered she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

Jess started having pains in her wrist, which continued up into her elbow and shoulder. A visit to the doctor revealed arthritis and painful shots into the affected areas to deal with the pain. This was a condition and a pain she was unable to do anything about because she was living on the streets, “Once I was on the streets I lost my MaineCare health insurance so I couldn’t go to the doctors or get medication for my condition. I went without meds for a year and the pain was terrible but I dealt with it. Sometimes smoking pot would help, or at least I thought it did at the time,” she said.

According to Google health, “Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs. RA usually requires lifelong treatment, including medications, physical therapy, exercise, education, and possibly surgery. Early, aggressive treatment for RA can delay joint destruction. Joint destruction may occur within 1 to 2 years after the appearance.”

Yet despite being homeless and having RA, Jess continued her studies at the local high school, keeping her grades up and her attendance in class high.

At 16, Jess needed a pair of shoes. She had no money and the ones she was wearing were worn out and hurt her feet when she walked. The need for a pair of shoes got her in trouble with the law. She helped herself to a pair of shoes and was caught and charged with shoplifting. When the police took her to the station to book her they also found narcotics in her possession. Jess states the drugs were not hers, ” It was a prescription I was holding for someone else”, she said.

Facing a theft charge and a possession of narcotics charge, it seemed that Jess would find herself in serious trouble. A seasoned juvenile corrections officer seemed to understand that the root of Jess’s problem was her homelessness and suggested she get in touch with The Shaw House. Jess remembers the exact date and events, ” it was August 25th, 2008. The guy at the Department of Corrections called the Shaw House and I spoke with a woman called Judy. She told me to come right over and sign in. I haven’t been on the streets since.”

If the streets were daunting the shelter was another experience for Jess, “I didn’t know anybody so I pretty much stuck to myself,” she said, “we had to be in at a certain time, there was a curfew, I couldn’t just come and go as I pleased, I wasn’t used to rules.”

After a couple of months living in the shelter, Jess moved into the transitional program at Shaw House, a longer-term placement where young people are giving the chance to attend school, get a job and prepare for the day they leave and take their place in the community.

In June 2008 Jess graduated from high school, something she worked very hard to achieve and a personal goal that she never gave up. She even attended the prom with her boyfriend. After graduation Jess found a job and is currently working. She is still staying at the Shaw House where she has her own room and the support of staff. Jess continues working hard in her transition to becoming an adult and taking her place in the community. She hopes to save some money, get a car and a place of her own. Education is still in her plans with a couple of classes next year.

These aspirations are the same as the teenager that lives next door to you, a nephew or a niece. All young people seem to have these dreams, save some money, get a car, an apartment, maybe go to college When asked what she wanted to be when she grows up, Jess said she wasn’t sure but “not homeless, that’s for sure” she quickly adds.

There has been a lot said recently about homelessness. The New York Times ran a series of well-written, well-researched, articles on the homeless. On a local level, The Bangor Daily News ran a front-page story on the increase in homelessness and how the City of Bangor is attempting to deal with the lack of shelter beds in the area. It was interesting to note that sharing the front page was another story on State spending cuts to the very services that the homeless rely on. The photographs that accompany the story show adults drinking, passed out in a wooded area. The content of these pictures are of grown-ups. Absent is the friendly smile of Jess and the new face of homelessness.