WSW: A Veteran Looking to Help Homeless in Portland, Maine

Apr 29, 2014

A Stand Down for Veterans event to address issues of homelessness among vets in Massachusetts
Credit FEMA Photo Library/Wikicommons

 (This story has been updated.)   

In Portland, Maine a veteran spends his nights trying to find the city's homeless, so he can help. Kalamazoo reporter and WMUK Correspondent Chris Killian followed along. 

It’s 10 p.m. and Roger Goodoak gets his evening fix of caffeine. He starts every night by pulling his Dodge Caravan through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru on Congress Street in downtown Portland, Maine. After getting his French vanilla coffee, he takes off into the night on an endless search for those who’s home is a back alley or a dark corner here in the state’s largest city.

Roger puts on a bright orange safety vest. Markers and tire pressure gauges fill the pockets; patriotic pins and medals from his service in the US Navy hang from the fabric. He wants to be seen by those who often hide. He lights a cigar, takes a few puffs, and we’re on our way.

In his van, Goodoak points into the darkness at a city park. I see nothing but he knows what he’s looking for.

“See him all the way back in the corner? I’m pretty good at spotting them.”

Roger is a one-man social work agency. He’s the go-to guy for the city’s homeless when they need help with anything from bed bugs and legal aid, or free eyeglasses from the Lion’s Club. He runs the Southern Maine Veteran’s Alliance that helps homeless vets but also extends a hand to anyone without a place to go. He’ll administer first aid; give someone a ride; be an ear for a lonely soul. But the thing Roger is most known in Portland for the blankets he gives out for free, collected from veterans groups and charity organizations. “When it gets cold these people are gonna need me. I’m their last hope…to have a warm night.” 

"When it gets cold these people are gonna need me. I'm their last hope to have a warm night."

We don’t find any veterans this night. But we do find homeless folks struggling with mental illnesses. Many out here have one. Already cut off from society, their disability often puts them even further away from the help they need because of fear or not being able to trust others.

Goodoak spots a man sleeping on a bench, half covered with a bath towel. The man jolts awake as Goodoak approaches.

“How come you don’t wanna go to a shelter is my big question?”

The man replies that he has already been to them, and was kicked out. Roger says this is a big problem that the shelters don’t deal with because of mental health issues. Roger tells homeless people that if they see his van at night, or see his vest to wave him down, He'll give them one.

There are several homeless shelters in Portland and Roger will be the first to tell you that they do a good job. But like many other large urban areas, the shelters here are nearly always full and often are not equipped to deal with the mentally ill. (Some advocates and homeless service agencies in Portland like Preble Street say they are making efforts to reach out to and serve homeless people who are mentally ill or who are veterans.) 

"These are the forgotten people, these are the people who there's no help for"

“When I asked him why he didn’t go to the shelter, the first thing he said was ‘mental illness.’ These are the forgotten people, these are the people who there’s no help for. If I don’t bring them blankets, they’re gonna freeze this winter. And I can’t let that happen. They’re good people. They’re afraid to take their meds or they’re afraid of the doctor. I met a woman one time she was afraid to go indoors because she lost her family to a fire. Everybody has a reason.”

Over by the main post office, Roger spots a woman huddled in the corner of a bus stop shelter, shivering. We get out and walk over. There’s something moving beneath her sweatshirt, pulling and stretching the dirty, worn fleece. He hands her a blanket. It’s a baby squirrel that’s the focus of her affection.

Roger asks

"Are you gonna be ok? If I see you again some night I’ll give you another blanket."

We get back in the van. A mixture of anger and utter disappointment swirls on Roger’s face.

“It’s sad. I hate this job. Know what I mean.” “What happened back there?” “She had a baby squirrel. That was her baby. Didn’t you hear it? At first I didn’t understand. I thought she might have been talking about a child that was deceased or something. Then I saw a little tail. That was her baby.”

Next Roger says “Let me show you something around the corner. It’s sad.” We drive a short distance and Roger parks the van, leans back into his seat, and points to a parking structure in front of us.

“See that parking garage? Right there: just last week someone jumped off it, committed suicide. A homeless guy. You never know what triggers them. But that’s right. He jumped off the top. It’s a shame. It’s not a way you wanna live.”

According to the federal government, about one of every four homeless people in this country suffers from some form of severe mental illness. These are disabilities that can keep a person from developing relationships that would let them get help, maybe even permanent housing. In comparison, only six percent of all Americans are severely mentally ill. Low on gas, we stop to fill-up. A small ongoing can drive and little donations help, but Roger finances the vast majority of his work out of his own pocket. It isn’t easy. He lives on a fixed income from a V-A disability program.

“My kids sacrifice everything. We don’t have much money by the end of the month. But you do what you gotta do.”

Roger is relentless, maybe even obsessed in his passion to help out those who call Portland’s streets home. He identifies with them. You see, he too has a mental illness and spent time living on the streets. He knows what that fear feels like.

“I came to Portland with the clothes on my back. I had a breakdown.”

For hours we just drive, the van filled with Roger’s cigar smoke and the soft tick of the turn signal blinker. We see homeless folks tucked into dark places – under bushes, in the back of a vacant lot – but there is nothing to give them. There are no more blankets. Roger says he never does.