KENNEBUNK — Jeanie Cannell speaks softly, her voice nearly drowned out by the thrum of passing trucks and the chirp of cars being locked in the parking lot of the Maine Turnpike rest stop. A steady stream of truckers and tourists walk past the picnic table where she sits with her head in her hands.
“They think that we choose to be this way,” she says, pushing wisps of hair back from her freckled forehead. “Nobody would choose this.”
For the past three months, Jeanie, her husband, Roger, and his daughter have been sleeping in an old van parked in front of the turnpike service plaza while they search in vain for an apartment.
They’ve been looking for a place to rent for more than seven months, since long before they were pushed into homelessness after they left their apartment in Biddeford and their winter rental in Old Orchard Beach ended.
Jeanie, 63, estimates she’s applied for more than 100 apartments, often paying a $35 application fee per adult. Sometimes they don’t hear back from landlords overwhelmed with dozens of applications. Other times the apartment is already gone by the time they see the listing on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.
They’re on the waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher and haven’t been able to find a motel they can afford on Roger’s $1,400 monthly Social Security check and her income from Cabela’s.
Their circumstances are dire and complicated by the added stress Jeanie and her family are under. Roger, 72, has bladder cancer and has chemotherapy once a week. He goes to physical therapy twice a week for injuries from a devastating fall that ended his 29-year career as a dump truck driver for Shaw Brothers Construction. He is in constant, agonizing pain.
Jeanie is dealing with her own health struggles. Her doctors want her to rest but she has to earn money and take care of her husband. She works full time and worries constantly about how he is doing. Being here in this van makes it all worse.
“We do try to make the best of it. Do I want to live this way? No, I absolutely do not,” Jeanie says. “This is driving me crazy. I’m trying to look on the bright side. Then there are other times I wonder, how did I get here?”
‘THIS IS A CRISIS’
Advocates at local social service agencies and nonprofits say it is hard to know exactly how many people, unable to find affordable housing, have found themselves homeless, living in their cars or in tents tucked away in the woods. Some show up at shelters and food programs looking for help, but others may find it overwhelming to navigate a maze of services while dealing with the stress of just getting by.
The Rev. Shirley Bowen, who runs Seeds of Hope in Biddeford and leads the local homelessness task force, has seen more people than ever come into the neighborhood center to access resources, including help finding housing. The center can easily document at least 60 people in Biddeford alone who are sleeping in cars, tents, the train station or in the doorways of empty buildings.
“There’s no end in sight,” she said. “The reality is there’s nothing available. Even for people that have funds, there’s no place for them to go. This is a crisis, and I don’t use that term lightly.”
The housing crisis in York County has created “a horrible situation for many, many people,” said Brad Bohon, community relations manager for York County Community Action Corp., a Sanford-based agency with a range of health and social services programs.
“If you’re on a limited income and have no other resources, you’re really at the mercy of the market,” he said. “It’s very, very hard.”
York County Community Action Corp. administers the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program locally, and it has distributed $25 million in assistance over the past two years to keep low-income county residents in their homes or in motels. The temporary program, created during the pandemic to address housing challenges nationwide, provides assistance to low-income people to cover rent and utilities.
Jackie Watson, who oversees the rent relief program, said people who are having difficulty paying rent or experiencing homelessness can apply for assistance. The agency can work with clients and landlords to cover rent and other costs. It also can pay the invoice for motel and hotel stays at a nightly rate set by the government. But she acknowledged that it’s very hard for people to find a motel with vacancies at that rate or below during the summer.
YCCAC often receives emails from people asking for help because their rent has increased by $600 or $700, far more than they can afford.
“The affordability and availability of rentals is a big problem,” Watson said. “Folks that are trying to come out of a hotel or motel and trying to find a rental are having trouble. For those that might be available, the rent is so high it’s not attainable for a lot of folks.”
It’s even harder to find homes for older people, veterans, large families and people with disabilities or special medical needs, Watson said.
Jeanie’s search for a new apartment has been limited by the need for a first-floor unit because Roger can no longer walk up stairs. They can afford to pay about $1,500 in rent, far less than most of the listings they come across. They finally got on the waiting list at an apartment complex in Portland with rents starting at $1,050, but they have no idea how long they might have to wait for a unit to open up. Jeanie also reached out to YCCAC but has not yet received any assistance for its programs.
SOMEWHERE TO SLEEP
Jeanie and Roger both grew up in rural Maine and knew each other for a long time before they got married eight years ago. Both had been married and widowed twice before. They each have three children. His daughter Margaret Belanger, 50, moved back to Maine from West Virginia three years ago after her dad fell down the stairs while moving a washing machine and could no longer work.
Roger’s injuries were extensive, with brain bleeding, multiple breaks and a rotator cuff torn nearly all the way through. He had multiple surgeries, but he says his back and right arm hurt now more than ever. He uses a cane for balance. He also has a motorized wheelchair for when he’s in a lot of pain or has to go a long distance.
“They said he’s lucky to be alive,” Jeanie says.
While Roger was recovering from his injuries, doctors discovered cancer in his bladder. They were able to remove it, but he needed a round of chemo. He put it off for a while, until Jeanie told him he couldn’t wait any longer. He now has two more chemo treatments to go before tests to make sure they got it all.
The couple had been living in a second-floor apartment in Biddeford until Roger’s fall. Because of the difficulty going up stairs, they then had to move into a different apartment in the city. Jeanie says there was trouble from the start, with drug dealing out front and neighbors who harassed her husband. They felt they had to leave, moved into the winter rental in Old Orchard Beach and started looking for an apartment in December.
Margaret, who lived with them and split the rent, says it’s been hard to watch her father go through such a tough time. Before his fall, he worked 12-hour days and spent his free time puttering around, fishing and going for drives. Now he can’t sit for more than a few minutes before the pain rips through his body.
Last spring, when it became clear that they weren’t going to find an apartment in time, Jeanie found a 1997 Dodge Ram van for sale. They drove to Rockland to buy it for $2,500, then spent more money on repairs. It came with a single bed in the back.
“I had to get something because I could not live under the stars. I don’t know if I could deal with that,” Jeanie says.
When one of Jeanie’s coworkers at Cabela’s – it’s like a family there, she says – saw how small the bed was in the back of the van, he gave her a larger mattress and helped install it on a platform. Margaret sleeps next to it, on a foam pad on the floor, under the windows they crack open to try to catch a breeze at night.
They stayed at a campground in Saco for the first couple of weeks after they moved into the van. Margaret slept in a tent, bundled in a jacket because by then it was cold at night. When the summer rates kicked in, they couldn’t afford to stay. Roger thought about parking the van outside of Walmart but chose the service plaza because it has bathrooms and he thought nobody would be likely to bother them.
‘I’M SICK OF LIVING LIKE THIS’
A steady drizzle hits the roof of the van as Jeanie sits cross-legged in the rear, sorting and refolding clothes in the row of storage bins that separate the front from the back. On top is the bucket of toiletries they carry into the service plaza bathroom for sponge baths, alongside a stack of towels and a coffee maker. Roger’s bright blue shirts hang from hooks on the far wall.
Jeanie keeps the van as neat as possible, but it’s still more cluttered than she’d like. She wants to move some of their clothes into the storage unit in Waterboro they rent for $165 a month.
Earlier on this day, they went to Portland to try to get on that apartment-complex waiting list. Jeanie also has a lead on a duplex in Sanford owned by a man who runs a motel in Kennebunk. He told them he’d rent it to them if another tenant doesn’t keep paying, but they won’t know until August if that will work out.
Jeanie always tells herself that everything happens for a reason, but it’s becoming harder to hold on to hope that this will lead to something else. She recently had a vision that someone was giving her a house.
“We’re old,” she says. “We shouldn’t be in this situation.”
Each morning, Jeanie and Margaret wake up early and do their best to bathe in the service plaza bathroom before going to work at Cabela’s, where Margaret is a cashier and Jeanie pitches credit cards to customers. Jeanie takes Roger into the handicapped-accessible bathroom to clean and shave him, tasks he can no longer accomplish himself. One time, another person who parks overnight at the service plaza brought Jeanie and Roger to Planet Fitness for a real shower.
“I’m sick of living like this. This is hard on all of us,” Margaret says. “It’s hard because you can’t take showers. It’s hard to keep yourself clean. I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor and that’s hard on my back.”
Margaret struggles with feeling ashamed and embarrassed that they don’t have a place to live. She doesn’t wish this situation on anyone, she says, but it’s taught her not to take life for granted.
It’s too expensive to eat regularly at the restaurants in the plaza and Jeanie can’t eat that kind of fast food anyway. She misses cooking in her own kitchen. They get food stamps, but those don’t go far when you have to buy food that’s already cooked, she says.
As the light drizzle gives way to steady rain, Jeanie and Margaret talk about where to go for dinner. Jeanie isn’t hungry and Margaret is in the mood for Amato’s. They settle on Mulligan’s in Biddeford, where the prices are low, the staff is friendly and Roger can get the meat-and-potato dinners he likes most. (A steak there costs $5.99.)
‘EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE HELP’
Jeanie and Roger don’t drive the van on a daily basis, relying instead on their other car as a lifeline to get them to food, the laundromat and medical care.
A while back, they brought their Ford Escape into the dealership because it needed new brakes, an inspection sticker and other work that they were told would cost nearly $1,800. One part they need is on backorder and won’t come in until later this summer.
Jeanie and Margaret have to get to work and Roger can’t miss his doctors appointments. They have no choice but to keep the car running.
They found a mechanic in Saco who let them buy and bring their own parts, saving them some money. He charges $80 an hour for labor, far cheaper than the other options they’d looked into.
The family arrives at Seacoast Auto a few minutes before their appointment. It’s hot and muggy and the blazing sun is unrelenting. Jeanie moves a chair to the shadiest spot she can find – a narrow space between two old trucks – so Roger can rest. He sits for only a few minutes before the pain in his back becomes too much and he has to stand up. He leans on his cane and watches the mechanics jack up the car.
Inside the office, Jeanie and Margaret sit by the counter and chat with Mike Maksut, a retired police officer who owns the business. They talk about his law enforcement career, his dog and the moped Jeanie once had. Roger calls out for Jeanie and she goes out to talk to him.
The mechanic tells them that their car will need more work, but probably not for a couple of months. Jeanie’s shoulders drop when she hears the news. When she goes to settle her bill, Maksut tells her there’s no charge. She bursts into tears and pulls him into a hug.
“Everybody needs a little help sometimes,” he says.
“I’m just not used to people doing stuff for me,” Jeanie says as she gets back in the car to drive back to the van.
Jeanie sees even the smallest gestures of kindness as blessings: The Burger King employee who gives them free coffee, the man who handed Roger $100 after talking to him in the parking lot, the Planet Fitness employee who closed the men’s locker room that day so Jeanie could help Roger shower.
The sun is starting to lower in the sky as Jeanie, Roger and Margaret arrive back in Kennebunk the next evening, but the temperature still hovers in the high 80s. They turn on the van to try to cool it down with air conditioning. They all know it’s going to be a long night with just their small battery-powered fans.
The women have worked all day while Roger had physical therapy in the morning and chemotherapy in the afternoon. After work, they dropped off proof of Roger’s Social Security income at the Portland apartment complex and ate dinner at Panera Bread. Now that she’s back, Jeanie can finally lie down. Her stomach hurts tonight and she worries she’ll have to go to the emergency room again.
Roger puts his folding camp chair in front of the van, the only shady spot he can find.
“I just can’t live like this,” he says.
Inside the van, Margaret sorts her father’s pills into a day-by-day container before settling back onto her bedding. She and Jeanie talk about the whale watch they went on the day before.
They bought the tickets months ago when they thought their summer would look a lot different.
On Jeanie’s phone, they look through photos taken from the boat. In one, a whale tail sticks out of the surf, a rainbow catching on a spray of water.
Jeanie especially likes the photos of the little dolphins that darted around as whales swam near the boat.
The trip was Margaret’s first time on a boat and she loved it. For Roger and Jeanie, getting out on the water was a welcome distraction.
For five hours, they didn’t have to think about medical appointments or apartment applications or what they’re going to do next.
With that outing behind them, Jeanie is back to charting out the rest of her week: Long days at work, doctors appointments for herself and for Roger, paperwork that needs to be submitted with the apartment application.
She tries to hold onto hope that they’ll be in an apartment, or at least a motel room, sometime soon. But it’s hard and she’s tired. Her chest feels weighed down from the stress.
Sometimes she lets herself cry, but she mostly tries to keep smiling.
Her faith sustains her when nothing else seems to.
“How do I smile every day? Because I have Jesus,” she says. “If I did not have him, I don’t know where I’d be. Because I do have him, I can face tomorrow.”