**The following is based on my visit to Florence House in which I met with three of its residents who told me their stories. They explained what led them to homelessness, and what led them finally to Florence House. Please note that many of the residents in Florence House have reason to have their identity protected, and as such they will not be photographed, their full names will not be given, and no physical descriptions will be used.**
On an unusually warm, sunny day in early March, I sat outside Florence House (Avesta’s shared property with Preble Street. Shelter that serves women who may be victims of domestic abuse or homelessness). Early for an appointment to meet a few of its residents and take a tour, I sat speaking on the phone with a friend, complaining about something extremely unimportant.. A young woman walked past me pushing her son in a stroller. She was over-dressed for the weather, as was her son, and she looked bewildered and terrified. She walked a little closer and stopped, looked at me, opened her mouth slightly, her lips trembling, her eyes welling. Then she must have decided she didn’t wish to disturb me on the phone and continued down the sidewalk. I told my friend I would call him back and hung up the phone.
“Excuse me,” I called after her. “Can I help you?” Her voice shook, teetering on the edge of something desperate and deep.
“I’m in Portland, right?” She asked quietly.
“Yes. This is Portland. Do you need directions?”
“I moved to Maine two weeks ago, to Gorham with my boyfriend from North Carolina,” she explained, and her accent confirmed this to be true. “He just dropped off me and my s…” her voice stopped suddenly, she hunched over the stroller for support and began to cry. Her son looked up at her solemnly, her face so close to his, but did not cry himself. “…he just dropped off me and our son here. He told me to never call him again and then he just left.” She paused and then cried “Bastard!” She wiped her eyes and nose, her lips continued to quiver involuntarily and she inhaled quick, erratic breaths, but seemed more collected.
“Oh my God,” I sympathized. “Have you tried there?” I asked pointing to Florence House, ignorant at the time to the fact that women with children cannot stay there. Her face grew eerily pale. She nodded that she had been inside, then turned away from me and continued walking towards Congress Street without saying another word.
At the time, I stood there watching her walk away in complete shock. I wish I had known to direct her to Chestnut St. Family Shelter, I wish I could have given her cab fare, or better yet, two plane tickets back to North Carolina, away from this confusing, rabbit-hole in which she now found herself. Away to a land where I imagined she had family and a support system. But I didn’t and I couldn’t. So instead I stood paralyzed as she drifted, frightened and displaced. I’ll always regret that I hadn’t been more resourceful in the moment, and I’ll never understand why I didn’t think of some way to offer any small kindness to a mother and son who needed it so dearly, but maybe I couldn’t move or speak because I couldn’t fully cope with the fact that I had just met the two newest residents of Portland, Maine and there was absolutely nothing I could do to truly help them as I watched them near the end of the block and enter their new lives among Portland’s homeless.