Jimmy Dutton stood among the homeless and hungry men and women Wednesday at the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen in Waterville, pouring cranberry or blueberry juice into little cups, depending on what they wanted.

“I do like the prep work and sometimes I serve the food over here,” said Dutton, 56. “Sometimes I serve the coffee. I put snacks out.”

A tall, bespectacled man wearing a green apron, a blue-and-white plaid shirt and a black baseball cap, Dutton told me he is doing community service at the soup kitchen to help work off money he owes in court fines.

“I try to help out here every day. I owe the court $1,180, and the judge said if I put in 75 hours, they’ll knock off $1,106.”

Dutton said he enjoys the work.

“I like it because I like giving back,” he said. “I know a lot of these homeless people from the shelter. I see them on the street. It feels really good to give back to them.”

Dutton himself was homeless after being arrested for domestic violence. He served time in jail, lost his apartment and lived two weeks at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter on Colby Street. He was given two years’ probation and ordered to take a domestic violence class.

“I’m disabled and I couldn’t afford to take the class and pay rent too,” he said.

Dutton told me he has mental health problems including post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders, which led to his trouble with the law. For the last year or so, he had been off his medications, but he finally saw a doctor at Inland Hospital who referred him to a psychiatrist, who put him back on the meds, he said.

Kennebec Behavioral Health helped him get into a program where he could have mental health care and get an apartment, he said.

“What they do is, they pay a certain part of my rent. My rent is $635 and I pay $218. I got an apartment on Elm Street one week ago. I like it because I can’t drive anymore — my license is suspended — and I’m right near stores I can walk to.”

As we talked, soup kitchen patrons waiting in a long line inched their way up to the counter, where they were served a hot meal by volunteers, as well as by children from Mount Merici School who for years have come to the kitchen to help. After getting their food, the men and women gathered at tables, ate and talked.

“The day before yesterday we served 92 people, yesterday we served 52, and today I’d say there’s probably 50 people,” Dutton said. “About 25 percent of them are homeless. Most of these people do have a place to live, but it’s toward the end of the month now, and they don’t have food stamps, they don’t have money for food, and they serve a good, hot meal in here.”

I asked Dutton about his life and how he ended up here.

He grew up in Rhode Island, where he attended school but never finished, he said.

“I got my GED in prison, in Cranston,” he said. “I did probably 22 years of my life in prison, in and out. When I was young I was just butt-ass wild, stealing cars, breaking into houses, robberies. It was my mental illness and alcohol, a combination of both. I got out in 1993. Since then I’ve only been in jail a couple of times.”

He has three daughters, now all grown, by three women. One daughter is in the military and about to go to South Korea, one is a visiting nurse, and the third works at a Walmart, he said. He is proud of his daughters, with whom he keeps in touch via phone calls. His relationships with their mothers, obviously, did not work out.

“One got her head blown off over crack cocaine in Rhode Island, one died of cancer in Rhode Island, and one is still around in Connecticut.”

Dutton said he came to Maine eight years ago from Rhode Island to take care of his sister, who was sick.

“When I was homeless, I bounced from couch to couch for a while at friends’ houses. I was sleeping in the back of U-Haul trucks, and I finally got into the homeless shelter. This was my second time there.”

He thinks he is on the right path now and wants to continue.

“A counselor from the homeless shelter, she just called to ask if she could come by my apartment to see how I’m doing. She’s coming to see me tomorrow. I’m supposed to meet with the Salvation Army lady who is going to help me get some furniture. She told me to make a list of what I need because right now I’m sleeping on an air mattress a homeless guy gave me. I do have a stereo and I have a couple of milk crates for tables.”

I asked Dutton where homeless people go to get warm during these cold winter days when the temperature dips into the single digits. They stop in at the soup kitchen, of course, and stay until it closes about an hour later, he said. They also go to the Waterville Peer Recovery Center on Ticonic Street and to the Waterville Public Library.

I checked with Library Director Sarah Sugden to ask about whether patrons often come in to get warm. She said the library welcomes everyone and is an important resource when the weather is very cold or hot.

“On most winter days, the library has a variety of visitors, many of whom are using the library space as an informal warming center and cooling space in the summer months,” Sugden said. “It is not uncommon for individuals to spend all day in the library, enjoying its comfortable climate and safe spaces. There is no limit on the amount of time a person can spend in the library, as long as that person is compliant with the library’s behavior policy.

“I can share that we have been observing that people arrive at the library well before the library opens at 10 a.m. Security cameras reveal that some individuals arrive at the library’s patio at 8 a.m. and wait there until we open. It’s obvious it’s a really cold wait for these folks. Limited library funding makes it impossible to extend hours and open earlier. I very much wish it were otherwise.”

Meanwhile, at the soup kitchen, Dutton said that after he served drinks, he was going to help clean up and wash dishes.

The cook, Austin Segel, who was supervising the kitchen Wednesday, said many homeless people sleep in tents down by the river in the summer; but in the winter it is tough, especially when it is as cold as this winter has been. The soup kitchen helps, but it is always in need of donations, according to Segel.

“People are very generous, but we go through it,” he said. “Decent food costs money.”

Places such as the homeless shelter, the peer recovery center, the soup kitchen and the library make a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable, who struggle just to stay warm.

Dutton knows the situation only too well.

“There’s really no place else to go in Waterville if you have no other place. Unless you got a friend, you’re out of luck.”

He said he feels he is doing pretty well now, with help from those who care. He keeps his fingers crossed.

“One step at a time,” he said. “One day at a time.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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