“Gimme Shelter.” – Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
The List. The Housing List. I remember calling Housing at Shalom House one cold and rainy day, and asking the woman who answered if she could tell me where I was on the List. She replied that she couldn’t tell me where I was on the List, only if I was or wasn’t on the List.
“Is there really a list?” I asked in frustration. It was late fall of 2012 and Mr. Nixon, Kosmo, Bella (my dog) and I were occupying a pretty sketchy squat right on upper Congress. I’d become officially, no-more-avenues homeless in the spring of that year, eventually spending a night or two at the Oxford Street Shelter to verify my homelessness and get me on the List. From there I went to spending nights on the floor at Old Man Ali’s, or several abandoned buildings around town (squats), or on the ground in a good bag in the DMZ across from the Circle K down on commercial. After staying with Captain Palmer and then Fazil on the worst winter nights, we ended up camping on the shore of the Fore River and the surrounding woods, before the area’s conquest and development by Phineas and the Norweigens.
(Is that a band?)
By August of 2013 I was living between the camps on the Fore River and Rose Elizabeth’s place in the West End. That’s when I finally received what I had come to believe of as the “Golden Ticket,” the Brass Ring of the Homeless Nation, something that I’d waited a year and a half for: a housing voucher. B.R.A.P. (the Bridging Rental Assistance Program.) to be more specific. With B.R.A.P. you pay 51% of your income towards rent, with housing picking up the rest. After child support and fines I wasn’t sure if I’d have 51% of my principal left, but that didn’t matter. I was gonna be off the streets.
I assumed that the voucher was the goal, that after the voucher, doors to prospective homes would just swing open in my direction; it wasn’t so. I was given a list of landlords who accepted housing, signed up with AVESTA and another agency or two, made the calls and even (painfully) lost a couple of application fees. I couldn’t find a place. I had a month to find a place, followed by one, two then a final thirty-day extension.. still, nothing. I couldn’t believe it – was it possible that, after waiting all this time for a voucher that I wouldn’t be able to find a place to use it?
I was bumbling around the PRC one day, when I ran into a friend of mine from the hip little Saturday Morning N.A. meeting at the Unitarian, “Rocket.” Rocket was a woman in her late forties, and she’d run the streets for a long time before getting into recovery. She’d even had an encounter with Old Man Ali, long before I met him, where she held his two cell phones hostage until he paid her for “services.” I told Rocket my problem, and with a “hold on.” she got on her phone, tapped out the digits, and was apparently answered.
“Yeah, Clark, it’s Rocket… yeah, I was wondering if you had any apartments available. I got a real good friend of mine here with.. what have you got?”
“He’s got B.R.A.P… he’s a real nice guy; I’ve known him for a while.. here.” and she handed the phone to me. This fellow, “Clark,” on the other end of the phone told me to come over the next afternoon, to the corner of Oxford and Anderson.
I met up with Clark the next day, without knowing (or caring) where the actual apartment was. Clark was a big, red-headed stocky fellow, baseball cap and a reflective vest, like the one’s worn by flaggers. Despite Clark’s friendly nature, I was still apprehensive, waiting for the application that would sooner or later appear, with or without a fee. But there would be no application. Instead, Clark told me to go down to the East Bayside cop shop, then on Boyd street, to have my sheet run. With a sigh, Clark told me, apologetically, that the building across from 32: 31, also his, was the most cop-called-on building in Portland, and that it had gotten to the point where they were fining him everytime they had to show up.
Clark just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t a drug dealer, a murderer, or a pimp, and, it turned out that I wasn’t. I went down to the cop shop where they were more that familiar with Clark, ran my record and gave me the thumbs up. I agreed to rent the apartment without even stepping foot in it. Clark let me move in immediately, even before the housing inspection, and so Bella and I, my battered guitar and my equally battered backpack, moved in. It was on the second floor, up past the red door, and I thought that it was perfect, a palace – bathtub, french-doors and a chandelier. It was like a squat where you didn’t have to hide below window level and there was heat. We didn’t have any blankets, but Bella and I found some old curtains in the closet, and curled up on the floor, me dressed in my clothes, per normal.
I had a home. When was the last time I’d had my own home? Wow.. um.. that would have been that room at the Lawrence House, back in 2007, before I moved in with the Whore. So six years later, past jail and prison and AMHI and the street, I found myself housed again, and, I had Clark Stevens and his unorthodox method of screening tenants to thank for it.
It was with a bit of a shock that I saw a classic Hollywood mugshot of Clark on the cover of the June 26 PPH, and Randy Billing’s accompanying article entitled, “Portland condemns apartment building because of frequent police visits.”
“Wow – that’s my old place!” I said to whoever was nearest to me at the time, “And my old landlord!” But as I read it, there was just too much that didn’t make sense.
The first thing to make me say, “hmm..” was “A man later identified as Stephens using a police mug shot from a 2016 arrest..” Why would the Portland Press Herald have trouble identifying Clark? When I first moved in, he worked for them! I wasn’t sure how long he’d been there, but I knew it had been a few years. Man, you think they would have done a background on Clark, and, well, since he worked there anyway, surely there were some company picnic shots they could have used.
And, of course, it’s not as though Clark was some sinister H.H. Holmes type, hiding an evil enterprise behind a mask of respectability, and it’s not as though Clark’s buildings at Oxford and Anderson suddenly went down hill. No, as I wrote a minute ago, the first thing that Clark did was to have me go to the cop shop to have my record checked out; the cops knew. I remember saying to a policeman visiting us one day: “why don’t ya’ll just drive by every fifteen minutes. There’s always something going on.” In the same way, it wasn’t as though these buildings were in fantastic shape in years previous, and suddenly got struck with a wave of bad plumbing and bedbugs. Just as housing passed my apartment for inspection, they passed the apartments and S.R.Os (Single Room Occupancy) across the street.
This was no cleverly guarded secret, no sudden discovery of wrongdoing! Hah!
Everybody knew. There were just so many parties involved that any sense of responsibility got diffused, and Clark did fill a need: he was housing those of us who couldn’t seem to be housed elsewhere.
“There’s a lake of stew, and of whiskey too.
You can paddle all around it in a big canoe, in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
– Harry McClintock, circa 1890
By the time I moved into 32 Oxford, I’d heard a thing or two about places run by outfits like Avesta. It wasn’t, you see, completely like it is when someone still plugged into the matrix gets an apartment. When you’ve been on the streets for a while, you’re willing to agree to lots of things that your average apartment seeker would have no part of. These places, I’d heard, were more like half-way houses, or minimum security Canadian prisons – security at the door (not just to protect you, either), constant checks to make sure you’re complying with the rules, etc. I knew a bunch of people who’d failed the Avesta course, usually because of smoking, drinking, or the most common cause of eviction for those of us just off the street: too many homeless sleeping on your floor.
When I first got my voucher I remember telling someone that I wanted a landlord who was like a cat: who just didn’t give a fuck. Clark gave a fuck, he was there everyday, prowling between buildings with his reflective vest on, fixing this and that. There were just too many holes in the dike for anyone to deal with at once, including the neighborhood itself. It was digging the proverbial hole in the sand, or maintaining an aquarium filled with Wal-Mart fish.
Rose Elizabeth had given up a pretty sweet flat in the West End to move in with me at East Oxford and Anderson, but she’s an adventurer. On the day she moved in, looking out the window we saw a young kid riding past our apartment, screaming and swinging a machete. As Rose Elizabeth stared aghast, I clearly remember saying, “I love this neighborhood!” I’d lived with her at the West End place, and I felt absolutely out of place, and I was, coming straight from the woods. Here on Oxford and Anderson, I could relate, or, maybe it was that I just didn’t stick out as much.
When you take a homeless person and put him in a home, there’s a period when what you have is a homeless person with a home. Just recently Rose reminded me of how, when I first moved in, I would go to be with my clothes on, just as though I was on someone else’s floor. When I left the apartment to wander back to the streets and the community that I knew, I still carried an overloaded back-pack with me for a while, still took the dog with me even when I didn’t need too. I still mistrusted anyone who hadn’t “been tested,” by the street or some similar trial by fire. In my new neighborhood, it seemed that everyone had been in the fire.
Two of the first people that I met from the neighborhood were gentlemen who lived on the third floor of the building across the street, Dave (an older fellow and a veteran,) and Cap’n Kev, and animated fellow in his forties. Kevin had known Clark from way back, back when he had his own successful autobody repair business. When things went south for Cap’n Kev, and he had no other place to go, Clark moved him into one of the closet sized rooms on 31`East Oxford. As a way to help pay for their keep across the street, Dave and Kev hung out at my new apartment, painting and getting the place ready for inspection. I remember the boys getting edgy every mid-morning – 10:30am was “Beer-thirty!” Capn Kev declared. It was when Clark was supposed to come by and drop each of them off a couple of Natty-Daddys and some cheap smokes.
The place passed inspection.
I had good neighbors. Some guy upstairs on the other side, Clark explained one day, was growing a mad crop of weed in his apartment; he was a blogger too. Downstairs was J.B., a painter and Kate, a CNA and their three kids. They controlled whatever part of the driveway wasn’t occupied by Clark’s El Camino (blown engine, what a shame) and his monstor truck. Upstairs lived Helen and Tony Sanborn, who’d lived there for twenty years and still do.
Clark promised repeatedly to get the lock on the downstairs door fixed, but it never happened, and apparently the previous occupant had sold quite a bit of crack. As a result, for the first two or three weeks I had wild eyed strangers coming to the door at all hours, even climbing up the fire escape tapping on the cracked window, looking for up. For the extent of my stay I sometimes had to kick people out of the downstairs hallway. I complained to Clark once about the crackheads and one guy in particular. Later on, Cap’n Kev came to my door, telling me that, by pointing this one crackhead out to Clark, I had pissed off this gang of Asian drug dealers, calling themselves “the X-men” occupying the second floor of 31 East Oxford. Kevin assured me that he had smoothed things over, calmed things down, but warned me to be careful around the neighborhood.
But, I never had any trouble in the neighborhood. Whoever was on the second floor was soon gone, and a roofer and his family moved onto the first. If there was any trouble from across the street where the cops were called, it always seemed to be responses to peeps getting loud and rowdy on the street. Clark took in his share of alcoholics who couldn’t hang onto housing anywhere else, (Geoff actually got on Naltrexone and quit) but there was always at least one or two characters selling up or down; this seemed to cause sketchy strangers to pass out or get down in the hallways of 31.
Eventually Clark was forced to fix the front door of 31, tried to make the residents lock it up at 10pm, put “no loitering” signs up, but none of that never really worked. If a recurring guest caused too much trouble, Clark would ban them from the property, but he’d eventually soften up, forget his previous directive or forgive whatever transgression.
The apartments always passed inspection, but the property didn’t. A couple of times while I lived there, the City would ticket Clark for having too much trash on the side of the house at 31. Clark would barrel up trash and recyclables, and sometimes I’d help him wheel it down the street to someone else’s dumpsters blocks away. A couple of times, it seemed, the property started cleaning up, but, where ever it came from, the clutter would always return.
But things could be beautiful too. At the end of East Oxford, at Boyd street is the Bayside public garden, and with Clark’s permission and donated seedlings left on the concrete, I was able to grow a pretty good garden there at 32 East Oxford. I continued to go to the soupkitchen, still ran peer-processing groups at PRC and around town; we went to church together on sundays up at Cathedral. When I asked Clark about getting a cat to hang out with Bella, it turned out that Clark’s girlfriend, Dee Dee was apparently raising a nation of unfixed cats down at his Spring Street development. Clark waited until Dee Dee was at Ricky’s and he ended up grabbing two kittens for Bella, Mrs. Haversham and Josephine Tangerine. And Rose Elizabeth danced with the children from the projects, kitty-corner across the street.
“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me.”
– Louis Winthorpe III in ‘Trading Places’ (1983)
I went back to my old neighborhood last week, looking for Clark. I’d tried to phone him, but that had never worked in the past and it didn’t now. I had managed to get in touch with Helen Sanborn from upstairs by phone, but aside from some general reminiscing and denying that she ever complained about me behind my back, I couldn’t really get any good neighborhood observations, and Helen and Tony have lived in that spot for the past thirty.
I walked down Anderson and looked around – things looked pretty much the same, maybe some new work here and there. But there was no one around. Back when I lived on 32 East Oxford, Clark and his merry men were a pretty constant, dynamic presence on the sidewalks and in the street. Now there was no one. I knocked on my downstairs neighbors door, and her charming mother answered the door. My neighbor was at work, and the cryptkeeper had no comment. I went across the street to 31, started to go down the alley (still crowded with junk) and a voice from across the street warned me, “Get out of that alley!” Turning about I saw that it was a woman, calling from across the street, from the window of my old apartment. I walked across the street to talk to her, only to have my other downstairs neighbor, J.B. stick his head out of the window in greeting. We only had a moment to talk when Clark pulled up in his rental car.
He greeted me warmly, and I immediately brought up the article that had been printed in the Portland Press Herald. He told me that he’d worked at the PPH for fifteen years, fixing machines, and now he was suing the PPH for some reason that he tried to explain, but I didn’t quite understand. Irregardless, his lawsuit against the Press Herald, Clark was certain, was the motivation for the paper going after him “so hard.” Front page, horrible face shot, nasty coverage. I don’t know; the whole think just smelled hinky. I asked him if he was staying down at his other place on Spring street (I’d even been told once that he had a place on the Prom). No. Smiling he pointed to the far fire escape and an open window at it’s top. “I’m staying there right now. That’s how I get in.” We made plans to meet the day after next, on Thursday.
Again, when I hit the neighborhood two days later, there was no sign of Clark. I’d spoken to one of the remaining occupants of 31, a short, bearded sipper named “Buck,” who’s been there for a while. He told me that the only occupants remaining are himself, and Clark’s girlfriend, Dee Dee. He had a few more weeks to find a place, although he figured that Clark would somehow take care of Dee Dee.
I walked around, took some pictures, waited. After a while, staking out Clark and talking to some of the neighborhood peeps (one who assured me that the women in my old apartment on second was Clark’s new girlfriend, another that months before the City took action there was a lot of coke coming out of 31) I texted Chris (back at the Bollard,) who’d expressed some interest in meeting Clark the night before. Despite Clark’s non-appearance, he decided to cruise by and scope the place out himself. Once he showed up, we walked around, took a few more pictures and were about to wrap it up, when from behind the red door of 32 appeared Clark.
After introductions I said: “First, Clark, you’ve gotta let us get a better picture of you.”
Clark happily agreed, posing on the front steps (Chris getting a kick out of his “Hootersr” hat.”Love it.”) and Clark dove in, without prompting into his take on the situation. Clark had worked for the PPH for fifteen years, maintaining the machines. About a year and a half ago he had a heart attack., and around the same time the Portland Press Herald, then owned by Donald Sussman, was sold to Reid Browner. The workers were told that some of them would go with the new outfit and others would be laid off; Clark was laid off. Clark feels that the sale of the paper wasn’t a “true asset sale” for several reasons, including the fact that Sussman continued to have “something to do with payroll” for the new outfit, and that there was no new union contract. If it’s a “true asset sale,” in which it’s employers would effectively be dealing with a completely new company then there would be new contracts to accompany the sale. There wasn’t on-going contracts were amended. If it’s not a “true asset sale” and therefore the same old company, then Clark, due to his seniority would have had “bumpin’ rights” and wouldn’t have been terminated.
After talking to Greg Kasich one day in Monument Square, Clark and another worker took the case to the Maine Civil Rights Commission. It’s an ongoing case.
“They gotta be pissed at me.” Clark said. I asked again about the reporting of him in the article. He worked there for fifteen years; didn’t they know him? Didn’t he ever go on company picnics?
“Yeah, we had company picnics, but I was down at the South Portland plant, and a lot of the reporters were up in Portland. So a lot of the reporters didn’t really know us maintenance people. But, when a lawsuit like this happens against a company like this, it spreads like wildfire, and everybody in the company knows who it is. “
“I mean,” he continued, ” why put that on the front page? In that first article with the mug shot they mention a theft and animal cruelty (that’s all they had on me.) Well, the theft was back in ’93, when I took some rice and a tub of butter from Super Shaws the first day they opened and I got caught! That animal cruelty charge, that was “Brandy” and she was tied outside of Dee Dee’s house, out at shalom house, and it kicked over the water. So the cops came and found a dog on a hot day with no water, and I got charged with animal cruelty.”
“Where’d the mugshot come from, Clark?”
“Oh, I got stopped driving my (monster) truck in Scarborough and got charged for driving an unsafe vehicle.”
Clark’s going to sell 31, but keep thirty two. And he’s not too upset about it. He claims that in the last six months the price of multi-family properties has gone up and he’s looking to do well in the sale.
It’s a weird case – by selling 31, the surrounding property values will probably increase further, and will by infection increase the value of 31.
“The thing about this building is, because of disorderly complaints, if you get more that three disorderly complaints in a month then they”ll nail you, and they got three or four months on me. But, they tried to get us on code issues too.” Clark said that back in March Chuck Pigoney, the City Inspector came through, along with Sooner (community policing), some housing people and a few others According to Clark, they did a walk through of the house and Pigoney declared that there were no code issues with the house, that the house was fine. He further said that “If any of you have any further issues with Mr. Stevens they are non-code related.”
A car pulled up and Clark said his goodbyes, adding, “Did you hear they’re buying the Sun-Journal, too! And I was thinking about getting my story in there!”
“They’ll never buy the Bollard.” smiled Chris.
I lasted two years at 32 East Oxford. While Rose Elizabeth was living there, we never let anyone over. Once she left, that changed, and over time the crowd got sicker and sicker, and maybe I did right along with them. I finally submitted the Sherwood piece, when it was just me and my intern, Maggie. By the time I did the “Opiatopia” article, I was a day out of detox, after a few weeks with Kosmo and CeCe camping on my floor. At some point during the year, my spoons began disappearing, and when they did show up again they were blotched with soot.
Clark was always good, always as understanding as he could be about the noise complaints, or the obvious over-occupancy. When he finally did decide to evict me, he was very apologetic about it, gave me an extra month, and in the end told me that I could stay even a month longer. “Just don’t let Helen know!” Wink, wink!
It worked out. I moved on to Freeport, something I never could have done fresh from the street, and here we are.
Thanks for getting us off of the street Clark. Thanks.
“What we would like to do is change the world-make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended for them to do.”
– Dorothy Day