On April 1, 2011, a snowstorm took much of the Northeast by surprise. But for Steve McFarland, a homeless veteran who had been living in the woods for more than a decade, it was nearly a death sentence.
More than a foot of wet, heavy snow fell in Bangor, sending cars off the road and shutting down power of more than 10,000 area customers. McFarland woke up that morning in his tent, pitched in a patch of woods a few miles outside of town, near the railroad tracks.
He was in great pain — a shooting, sharp pain that went from the base of his spine all the way down to his ankle.
Frightened, McFarland headed for the hospital, about a five-mile walk. In nice weather, when he was healthy, he enjoyed walking into Bangor. There, he would pass time in the library or at the local YMCA, where he took advantage of his membership to shower or do physical therapy for some old injuries.
In the heavy snow, though, with a leg so painful he could barely walk, McFarland thought he might wind up entombed in a snowbank.
“I said to myself, âI’m going to die today,'” he said.
But the storm ultimately became McFarland’s salvation, touching off a chain of events that landed him in a Waterville apartment operated by Community Housing of Maine, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for veterans and disabled adults who have been homeless for extended periods.
The group, the largest provider of housing to the homeless in the state, wants to eliminate long-term homelessness in Maine within four years.
“We could get it done,” Cullen Ryan said. “We could end chronic homelessness in Maine.”
Ryan is the executive director of Community Housing of Maine, a group that, with a staff of just nine people, provides housing to 1,000 people in the state.
While there are about 7,000 homeless people in the state each year, the large majority of them are going through a transition and only homeless for a short period.
The number of people who are homeless for longer periods is much smaller. There were 262 last year, Ryan said.
The organization, which is bolstered through partnerships with the Maine State Housing Authority, the Department of Veterans Affairs programs and other social service agencies, is growing. It owns 10 properties, including three in Waterville, that are dedicated to homeless veterans, housing a total population of 42 veterans at any given time.
The homes are designed not just to shelter veterans, but to be a place where they can be reached with other services, including mental health counseling that they might need to reintegrate into society. The strategy has significant upfront costs, but Ryan said the approach saves the government money. The group undertook a study of some of its own clients and found a net savings of about $4,400 per resident, based on reduced need for emergency services, shelters and detoxification programs.
McFarland’s apartment is spacious and clean, one of four units in an unassuming white house on Gilman Street in Waterville funded by the Maine State Housing Authority. Unlike some public housing projects, the house and its residents are indistinguishable from the houses surrounding it, part of what allows its residents to integrate into the community more successfully, Ryan said.
“They’re some of the best neighbors you could imagine,” he said. “Our people are finding their place within the community. They’re mowing each others lawns, bringing pies over, the whole thing.”
NOWHERE TO GO
McFarland, a Bangor native, now 56, always had struggled to put together a professional career. When he was 18, he joined the Marines for four years, most of which he spent stationed in Okinawa. He didn’t like what he called the barracks life, living among a group of other young men without family or much to do. He and his friends often wound up at the E-Club, a nightclub for enlisted Marines, drinking to pass the time.
When he left the military, he returned to Maine and spent five or six years working in shoe shops in the Bangor area.
By the end of the 1980s, the shoe shops closed down. McFarland wandered, sometimes to Southwestern states, including Arizona, working as a builder on construction sites. He always returned to the Bangor area. He never stopped drinking, a habit that eventually cost him jobs and his driver’s license.
He thinks drinking is what drove him into homelessness.
In 2000, McFarland was working a gig cleaning chain stores such as Rite Aid, all throughout the Northeast. One day, his co-worker was driving him and another man in a van through Ossipee, N.H., on the way to a job, when he got into a car accident. The driver was killed.
“The other guy in the van, he got stoved up pretty bad,” McFarland said. “I got stoved up pretty good.”
He suffered compression fractures in his back, dislocated his leg and his knee, broke his jaw and lost some teeth. In addition, some of the cleaning chemicals in the van splashed into his left eye, blinding it.
When McFarland got out of the hospital, he entered a physical rehabilitation center. When he left the rehabilitation center, he had nowhere to go, so he landed in a homeless shelter in Bangor.
It was the barracks life all over again.
“I couldn’t live in a shelter environment,” he said. “âCause, I don’t know, I was going through a lot mentally. I couldn’t deal with all the people, the crowds, the fastness of it, you know.”
INTO THE WOODS
McFarland canvassed the area, looking for a place in the woods where he could live without being noticed. He found a spot he felt was secure, where he could hear but not see the traffic.
He borrowed a sleeping bag from a social worker and spent his first night in the woods.
“At first, I struggled because of the pain I was going through; but I said to myself, âI can take it.'”
He saw hunters once in a while. He walked into town every day to the library or to shower at the YMCA, where he was a member. He got a tent and a bunch of sleeping bags, which he said were adequate protection from the cold, even when it was 20 below zero.
“I had a pretty good supply of wood, you know, broken branches,” he said. “I didn’t usually light a fire, but if I needed one, I could light one.”
Looking back now, he said, his time in the woods was a period of healing. When he first went in, he was a mess.
“I couldn’t walk well. I couldn’t see well. I couldn’t talk well. I couldn’t eat well,” he said. “I fought for two years pretty hard to survive.”
He lived on food stamps and on whatever odd jobs he could get. He said it was difficult to find work because his age and his eye, which was a milky white from the cleaning chemicals, made supervisors reluctant to hire him.
“I was on and off of food stamps,” he said. “I’d work a little, I’d lose food stamps. Work a little, I’d lose food stamps.”
He spent his money on laundry, food and the YMCA membership, where he struck up casual friendships with other members from all walks of life.
“Lawyers, a couple of judges, a couple of senators,” he said. “They didn’t know I was homeless. I never let on.”
When they asked, he told them he was a builder and contractor. Sometimes they would offer him jobs, but he was too embarrassed to let on that he lived in the woods and had no transportation.
“âI’ll come look at it when I have time, but I can’t come look at it right away,'” he would tell them. “Little white lies, you know.”
McFarland said he continued to keep his physical appearance up so that he could blend in and protect himself from the stigma of homelessness.
“I told a buddy of mine — he was homeless too and he camped out with me for a while — I said, âNope, you have to present yourself decently in the public. Take care of your clothes. Go to the Y. Clean yourself. You’re going to be in public all the time. If you stink like piss and you look like crap, people are going to be scornful of you. Kids are probably going to throw rocks at you.’ You need some homeless etiquette, I call it.”
While in the woods, he saw lots of wildlife. Wild turkeys, moose and deer were regular sights.
Once, a bear he estimates weighed 200 pounds entered his camp.
“I actually barked like a dog,” he said. “He turned tail and ran like crazy.”
He also worked on anger issues. “I think I went through a screaming stage,” he said. “I’d be out in the woods screaming, âGoddammit! This sucks!'”
He said the natural setting helped calm him.
“Being in the woods helped me,” he said. “It’s peaceful. The birds are singing. It would be tranquil.”
At first the physical demands of his life strengthened him and helped him rehabilitate himself.
Over time, though, as the years passed, they began to take their toll.
“I was getting tired in the woods. I was having physical problems,” he said.
Then came the day of the snowstorm. He woke up to such a pain in his leg that he couldn’t walk, isolated, six miles from the hospital.
As incredible as McFarland’s story of life in the woods sounds, Ryan said it isn’t unique among Maine’s population of long-term homeless veterans.
In fact, he said, McFarland is a textbook example of the veterans the group serves. The typical client, Ryan said, is in his 50s, “has been homeless for a long period of time, was in the armed service a long time ago, came out of armed service, came back to society, made a go of it on his own, tried to be productive, may have had some success; but then things fell apart.”
OUT OF THE WOODS
In 2011, when McFarland left his camp with his leg pain and limped through the snow toward the hospital, it was the beginning of the end of his life in a tent.
“Cars weren’t moving,” McFarland said. “You couldn’t walk down the street. Nothing was plowed.”
He was trying to get to Eastern Maine Medical Center, but the Bangor Community Based Outpatient Clinic, part of the VA Maine Healthcare Systems, was on his way, so he went there instead.
The doctor in the clinic diagnosed McFarland with inflammation of the sciatic nerve and gave him some pills to ease the pain. She told him the root cause was sleeping on the ground, and helped put McFarland in touch with other veterans services.
“I didn’t really want to get food stamps or housing paid for,” he said. “I didn’t really know a lot about the programs until I came down to the VA.”
Months later, he traveled to Augusta to an event for homeless veterans put on by the Togus VA and Bread of Life Ministries.
Before long, he boarded a Greyhound bus from Bangor to Augusta, returning to barracks life for the last time — a homeless shelter operated by Bread of Life.
After some months there, a spot opened up in the Community Housing of Maine program, and in late 2012, he moved into his own apartment for the first time in 12 years.
“The homeless program was a lifesaver for me,” he said. “It got me here.”
Today McFarland is looking toward the next chapter in his life. He walks without a limp and has gotten treatment for his eye, which had regained much of its sight and is no longer discolored. He arrived at the apartment with little more than a backpack, but he has accumulated a few possessions, including a bicycle and a shelf of books he purchased for a quarter apiece.
He still isn’t working regularly. He says he wants to, but it’s a difficult time for a person without a college degree to find a job in Waterville.
A beginning position with a fast-food retailer isn’t a realistic option, he said.
“You have to pay for a car, pay for insurance, pay for clothes, pay for laundry, pay for utilities, little things like toilet paper, stuff like that,” he said. “I’ve tried it. It’s impossible.”
Being in permanent housing also has helped him to give up drinking, he said. When a doctor told him his liver was beginning to show the negative effects of a lifetime of abuse, he stopped several months ago.
Without Community Housing of Maine and the other services that have helped get him out of the woods, McFarland said he didn’t know where he would have turned for help.
“I’d be out in the woods, or maybe head for the warmer weather,” he said. “Hop a freight train or something.”
Ryan said he hears stories like McFarland’s every day.
“We serve 1,000 people,” he said. “I could tell you 1,000 stories of how someone became homeless and came back.”