They were cold, hungry and homeless, heading north on Interstate 95 in the dead of night.
They didn’t know quite where they were going, or where they would end up, the couple with four children and one on the way.
It was early December and frigid outside. With the heater in the 2001 Dodge Caravan broken, the gas tank nearly empty, and no money in his pocket, Daniel, the father, turned off the highway in Waterville.
“It was exactly 3:54 a.m.” his son, Hunter, 11, recalled.
His brother, Ryan, 12, remembered he was shivering.
“The ice was creeping up the windows,” he said.
Daniel decided to try to find a hospital, because he knew hospitals are always warm.
“We were tired of being in the car. We had been in the car two, three days. It was just cold. We stopped at Inland Hospital and the emergency room staff were great. They didn’t make us feel like homeless people. They were very nice. They gave us breakfast sandwiches and eggs.”
His daughter Chandler, 8, interjected.
“And muffins,” she said. “They tasted like wheat.”
I met this family Wednesday at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, where they have been living since that cold night three weeks ago.
Daniel regards their ending up in Waterville as a sort of miracle.
“We were frozen and it was crazy, and we said, ‘What do we do?’ We didn’t know anybody. Why Waterville? I don’t know.”
What he does know now is that he doesn’t want to move around anymore. As a native New Yorker, truck driver and former longshoreman who has had many jobs that always ended, he longs for stability.
“I’m a worker — I’ve always been a worker,” he said. “But it’s been a weird economy. For the last four years, it has been up and down, left and right, so I’ve been picking up contract work.”
They had lived in New York, Connecticut and South Carolina — wherever the work took them. Just before arriving in Maine, Daniel had pursued a job in Pennsylvania that fell through.
He ran out of ideas and headed to Maine, where he had once worked.
And now, at the Waterville homeless shelter, he is learning skills he needs to become stable. He has been applying for jobs, going to interviews, and working with a caseworker. Once he lands a job, he will focus on finding a place to live.
“You can’t be lazy here,” he said. “The ones who are — they leave, eventually.”
I ask to see where the family sleeps — a small room with two sets of bunk beds, a baby’s bed and a mattress on the floor for Daniel. Across the hall is the laundry room, where guests wash their own clothes. There’s also a common room, divided into an area for families, and one for people who are single.
Earlier, Daniel explained that his wife, Gia, 42, and their 2-year-old daughter, Shiloh, were attending Educare Central Maine, an early childhood education program in Waterville. Gia, who has a degenerative spinal condition, is due to have their fourth child in February, he said.
They married in the late 1990s. He is from the Bronx; she, from Brooklyn. They met many years ago at church where her grandfather was the preacher.
A U.S. Army veteran, Daniel says he admits their current situation is not entirely due to the economy, poor pay for truck drivers and scarcity of jobs; he also has made some bad choices in his life — such as being impetuous when it comes to pursuing jobs and moving his family around.
“I’m 45 and my wife’s 42. This is our last baby. We came to Maine so that our children can have a great, stable life, and this is it. We’re not moving again.”
The children are enrolled in Waterville schools and are straight-A students, they said. Daniel wants to go back to school to become certified for heating, ventilation and air conditioning work while he moonlights as a trucker.
“I want that house with the grass,” he said. “I want to go in the backyard and have a cookout and I want the kids to have friends longer than six years. I want them to have stability.”
At the homeless shelter, officials are helping the family develop a plan for longterm stability and will monitor them long after they achieve it.
The shelter’s executive director, Betty Palmer, said that on Christmas, guests asked to serve dinner to needy people at a community dinner rather than be served themselves.
“They’re all good people,” she said. “They’re somebody’s mother, father, brother, sister, child. They just need some re-direction.”
The shelter will be full on Christmas day, with about 60 guests, including 27 children.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]