Speaking from his little office on State Street in Portland, Roger Goodoak makes it clear that he doesn’t spend much time at a desk. Early on this dark January evening, he’s there only briefly to check out a new letterhead for the nonprofit organization he founded in 2012, the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance.
The design is the creation of Broadreach Public Relations, whose pro bono work includes helping the Alliance in support of its mission: “to connect homeless veterans and others with the social services available to them, especially through the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
In practice, this means year-round scouring of southern Maine and beyond to find the homeless in their camps, or wherever, and provide them with bottled water, food, blankets, hats … whatever is needed, including emergency medical care, sometimes. And encouraging people to leave their tents and seek some form of shelter – Oxford Street in Portland, perhaps, and later, ideally, permanent accommo- dations. Sometimes Goodoak will transport people home, as he did one night this week, driving a young couple 75 miles back to family in Rumford.
“When presented with a valid reason and even a hint of a chance to get someone off the streets long-term and maybe for good, the MHVA is there to give them that chance,” is Goodoak’s comment, on the organization’s Facebook profile.
On the day of our conversation, that effort included an afternoon excursion to outer West Commercial Street in Portland, and a steep scramble up a slippery, muddy hillside to check on a campsite. Goodoak, 63, whose MHVA title is executive director, fell down and got soaked, and seemed to find it rather funny. “I’ve got to get to Wal-Mart to buy some cleats later,” he mused.
A Massachusetts native who “had a good career”of 14 years in the Navy before being discharged for alcohol problems in 1986, Goodoak spent subsequent years homeless and “drinking my way across the United States.” He eventually came to Portland a decade ago. Rob Parritt, a housing counselor at the Oxford Street Shelter, “saw hope in me” and connected him with VA programs that stopped his drinking and housineffected a life change, although he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD, is disabled, and continues to be treated for medical issues.
Recognizing the need (not least thanks to his own experiences) Goodoak founded the MHVA specifically to aid veterans, but its mission “has evolved” to include any homeless people in need.
“I’m out at a camp at night talking to a veteran, how can I ignore the 65-year-old woman who’s there, too? So I help veterans and the homeless. Without a doubt, I love them all. And I do not judge.”
“He’s a guardian angel for anybody,” said Linda Varrell, Broadreach president and CEO. “You could ask the Milestone Foundation, for one, about the lives he’s saved, people at death’s door.”
“I have watched his tireless commitment to helping people in crisis,” said Margo Walsh, a friend who founded MaineWorks, a staffing company with a social mission. “With kindness and compassion, he coaxes them toward services that are appropriate.”
Goodoak’s vehicle is a 2007 Town and Country van with 187,000 miles on it, and 100 miles or more being added daily. “I’m very fortunate that it has snow tires and runs every day. I make the payment and cover the insurance, and a charity pays for maintenance and gas. There are very kind people out there.”
Could he use a new van? “I’d be dancing a jig. I’d be doing the Funky Chicken.”
Goodoak estimates that at least 50 members of the public at any one time are helping sustain the all-volunteer MHVA’s efforts. Among them are Mery Simonds, his right-hand person, and his high-school- age children, Kevin and Briana. He cites a long list of “kind people” whose generosity keeps the MHVA afloat.
“Patriot Riders of America, Maine Chapter, the veterans motorcycle group, did a ride and gave blankets and coats. LifeChurch in Gorham gave us hundreds of blankets.”
“The Brunswick Police Department did a big drive. I love those guys. Let’s talk about police departments. The Portland police. An officer shoveling a path to a young couple living in a tent. Officers stop me to tell me where somebody is and what they need. The Westbrook police are wonderful. They give homeless people rides and support … There are so many things I see that people never hear about.”
Too often, those things are unfortunate.
“Not everybody welcomes me with open arms,” Goodoak said. “A lot of people are afraid, for their own reasons. I ask them to try the shelter, and maybe they do, but they can’t handle it, mentally, psychologically. You can’t force someone. I tell them ‘OK, you did try,’ and give them a tent … I’ve given out two today.
“For every ‘win,’ it seems, there are 20 losses, in some form,” he continued. “I was walking in the woods in Biddeford last summer and found a camp with a father, a mother and a young baby. They were petrified. I gave them what I could and told them I’d be back, with formula and more.
“The next day, they were gone. But all I can do is keep on looking, never give up looking.”
For more information, to volunteer, or to make a donation, please visit the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance profile on Facebook.
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