BIDDEFORD — The early afternoon sunlight filters through the windows as Janie Johnson, still shaking off sleep after working an overnight shift, cracks eggs for an omelet into a bowl and pours them into a pan.

Janie Johnson and her boyfriend, Cyrus Tilson, have breakfast together in the kitchen of their new apartment after moving in last month. The two did not yet have furniture. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For the first time in years, Johnson has a kitchen of her own.

Johnson, now 19, has been homeless off and on for nearly five years. After couch surfing in the homes of relatives and friends, she is glad to finally have her own space.

“I like having my own stuff and not worrying about it being touched,” she said. “It’s a lot better to be in our own place.”

Johnson and her boyfriend, Cyrus Tilson, moved into the first-floor apartment a couple of blocks off Main Street in early April. Two weeks later, the living room was empty except for a TV sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. In the kitchen, there was one chair. Tilson’s grandmother plans to give them a kitchen table and living room set soon.

Johnson became homeless for the first time at 14, after her mother moved to Florida and she left the home of relatives she’d been staying with. With nowhere else to go, she ended up at New Beginnings in Lewiston, one of only three homeless shelters for teenagers in Maine.


“It was scary because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said.

After three weeks at the shelter, she moved in with a family member, the first in a series of stops at the houses of friends and members of her extended family. There were nights she didn’t know where she’d sleep, but she always managed to find a couch to crash on. At 16, she rented an apartment until she couldn’t afford it on her own.

Janie Johnson plays with her cat, Bagheera, in the living room of her apartment. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For the five months before moving into her current apartment, Johnson stayed with Tilson’s family. She was still counted as homeless by her high school because her living situation wasn’t permanent. Tilson, 21, said he was homeless for a time when he was living in Rhode Island as a teenager.

Johnson missed more than a year of school because of her frequent moves and a surgery on her neck. She enrolled in the Alternative Pathways Center through the Biddeford School Department to recover the credits she needs to graduate in June. Her school schedule is flexible, allowing her to work nearly full time at the Dollar Tree while going to classes.

Linda Horsley, Johnson’s mother, said her daughter has overcome many tough situations and always shows compassion for those around her.

“She amazes me all the time,” Horsley said. “She’s very determined.”

This summer, Johnson will work a second job to make sure she has enough money to cover her $950-per-month rent. She’s hoping to go to college, but right now she’s focused on making sure she can support herself.

Janie Johnson stands in her empty apartment living room in Biddeford. “It’s a lot better to be in our own place.,” she said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Johnson regularly meets people who are homeless, both in school and in her neighborhood. She thinks the city needs more resources to help – starting with a homeless shelter – and is frustrated by the misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness.

“They think homeless people don’t have a job or don’t want to work and don’t do anything. Sometimes it’s not like that,” she said. “Not all homeless people are older. Some kids don’t have parents to take care of them.”

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