It was early afternoon and Brooks Ross was riding shotgun in a sparkling new Nissan passenger van, a cellphone on the center console next to his elbow.
The phone hasn’t started ringing that often yet, but it’s only a matter of time before the calls will stream in, he said. Since Monday, Ross and co-worker Adam Norton have been patrolling South Portland looking for those who need help, handing out sandwiches and water, and asking what people need to help them get by.
They are members of the HOME Team, a project run by Milestone Recovery on India Street, Portland’s only shelter that accepts people actively under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Since 2010, HOME Team workers have patrolled Portland’s streets and provided informal assistance and thousands of rides to Portland residents experiencing homelessness, filling a service gap between what police and hospitals are designed to provide.
As homeless services have morphed during the pandemic, so has the HOME Team’s approach to serving clients. When Portland shifted tactics to offer homeless people rented rooms in area motels to ensure they could maintain social distance, the HOME Team tried its best to serve South Portland, too, its drivers hustling up and down Interstate 295 to calls take and cover both cities.
“The increase for calls for service at our hotels on the west end has really been taxing us for some time, so we’ll take all the help we can get,” said Lt. Todd Bernard of the South Portland Police. Staff have been pitching the HOME Team’s services at shift roll calls in recent weeks to educate officers.
“We’re looking forward to working with them,” he said.
Sometimes that’s a ride to a clinic, or responding to a call from police to help an intoxicated person who needs a place to sleep things off and sober up. On Monday in South Portland, Ross and Norton wanted to get the word out that they’re open for business and will be covering South Portland full time, at least until the summer of 2023, when funding for the expansion is expected to run out in .
“This expansion is a direct response from South Portland’s municipality and their desire to have some form of alternative response with the growing number of unhoused folks who are out in South Portland,” said Joe McNally, director of homeless services at Milestone. Introduced in 2010, the Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement Team has become a vital part of the safety net. In 2017, the program brought on a nurse practitioner one day a week to offer basic medical care to the people the team reaches.
In the second half of last year, Milestone’s mobile services assisted 374 people and logged more than 7,400 encounters. Lately, the teams that go out have been averaging between 1,100 to 1,400 encounters per month, McNally said.
Covering two cities with one van was sometimes a stretch, McNally said. Now the HOME Team has two vans and two shifts that overlap. That means there will likely be more time to do proactive outreach work, since one crew can handle incoming calls to give the other more time to talk with clients and build the rapport that is key when clients decide they want to change their lives or ask for More substantial assistance.
Plans to expand the program got underway last year. In October, Milestone was awarded a contract with South Portland, which will spend about $146,000 of federal recovery funds to get the service to its city up and running, McNally said. Some of that cost, about $45,000, went to buy the new van, with the remainder paying for program costs and salaries. The Portland program costs about $140,000 annually and relies on federal block grants distributed by the city. Together with the Portland van team, Milestone will spend about $304,000 of federal money this fiscal year to provide the services in both cities.
By late April, Milestone HOME Team workers will be staffing both cities from 9 am to 9 pm every day of the week. The Portland team will continue to operate from 9 am to 5 pm, and the South Portland team will start at 1 pm
On Tuesday afternoon, Norton and Ross trundled into an empty parking lot of the Budget Inn on Main Street. It’s one of the South Portland hotels that has hosted homeless people from Portland during the pandemic.
Ross hopped out with a sandwich and a water bottle and knocked on a door. He was looking for a man who he heard needed a meal. No one answered, but a few rooms down, a woman emerged with a lighter and a cigarette. She wanted to see what all the commotion was about. Ross told he was there to drop off food.
“Robbie’s not here,” she told Ross, lighting her cigarette.
“We’ll be back,” Ross said.
Back in the van, the cellphone rang.
IN NEED OF A RIDE
“This is Milestone South Portland HOME Team,” Ross said. “Yeah, all right, we’ll be there in five or 10 minutes.”
After a short blast across the highway connector, the van rolled into the parking lot of the Days Inn on Maine Mall Road. Soon, homeless clients will be forced out of that hotel, along with another in town, the Comfort Inn. The owner of both hotels announced his decision to end the relationship after community complaints mounted and the town held a session to air the grievances.
A man in a surgical mask emerged from the lobby and hopped into the back – and immediately, Ross and the client were jocking around.
“This is a new van? Damn!” the man said, laughing. “This is the second one? I knew you had that money!”
Ross said he’s been working with the program for four years, starting after he got clean himself, and helping other people has helped him stay sober. He’s been homeless before, and Milestone clients trust him because they know Ross has been where they are. Before working at Milestone, Ross said, he struggled to keep a job because of his drug use.
“I never felt like I had a purpose,” he said.
The client, 32, who declined to give his name, said he needed a ride to the Greater Portland Health Clinic, and called the HOME Team on a lark, instead of catching a bus. Within a few minutes, the van was rolling north on the highway, and in a few minutes more, he was out of the van, thanking Norton and Ross. As they shook hands, Ross made a soft-sell on the box of sandwiches, and the man left with a meal and a water.
On the way out of Portland, as Norton waited at a red light on Park Street, a woman recognized him and he rolled down a window to wave and smile.
“I’m directing traffic!” she said, as she crossed the street, a coffee cup in one hand.
“Thank you, Mel,” Norton said. Within a few minutes, Ross and Norton were back in South Portland. They spotted a man sitting on a milk crate in the median of the exit lanes from the Hannaford supermarket complex, holding a cardboard sign. “Diabetic Need Help God Bless.”
‘HEY, YOU HUNGRY?’
Ross and Norton circled around and met him at the back of the parking lot.
“Hey, are you hungry?” Norton said. The man looked weary, his face blistered from being outside. He took a sandwich and a water bottle and thanked them.
Ross and Norton are still waiting on business cards to come back from the printer, so Ross ran to the van and tore off a scrap of paper and scrawled their direct phone number on it in blue ballpoint pen.
“If you need a ride to the shelter or something, give us a call,” he said.
With the onset of warmer weather, more people will begin to camp outside rather than stay close to the shelters in Portland, Ross said.
It’s harder to hide a tent in Portland, and police often clear out campsites that stay in one place for too long. But South Portland is a different landscape. In the highly commercialized west side of town around the Maine Mall and the clusters of industrial parks and office complexes, there are patches of woods, sometimes only a couple hundred feet thick, where people pitch a camp and drivers whiz by without a clue.
At the intersection of Cummings and Payne roads, a balding man in a gray sweatshirt held a sign that read, “in need of help.” His graying beard was tied into two bunches below his chin.
“Rodney!” Norton said when he spotted him.
He was a client they’d helped before.
Norton swung the van around and stopped in traffic so he could get out and talk. Within minutes, Rodney Yancey, 42, was climbing into the van’s third-row seat.
Yancey wanted to show them where he had been living, a campsite he shared with a couple other people. Within a few minutes, the team pulled into a business parking lot, got out, crossed a busy road and stepped into a patch of woods.
LITTLE THINGS MAKE BIG THINGS
A couple of hundred feet from the road, Yancey was welcomed home by a black dog named Cash. The dog wagged its tail and rubbed his massive head on Yancey’s legs. He said he took the dog in because a friend couldn’t find an apartment that would allow him to have an animal. The encampment was surrounded by a makeshift fence made of tree limbs and camouflage tarps.
At the center was a series of tents connected under an outdoor canopy, complete with a closing front door. The floor inside was covered in sections of carpet. Old car seats lined the living room. In the back room, Yancey and another man had set up a full-size propane grill. In the front, an antique wood stove kept them warm at night.
After visiting the camp, Ross and Norton returned Yancey to his post at Payne Road and loaded him up with sandwiches. Before he left, Yancey pointed out a silver earring he wore that a motorist had given him. It was a tiny set of wings.
“This is my angel,” Yancey said. “It’s the little things in life. They make the big things.”
As Norton and Ross drove off, they both looked at Yancey, concerned.
“He looked really skinny,” Ross said to Norton.
“I know,” Norton said.