February 8

Homeless veteran finds Waterville housing after 12 years in the woods

Steve McFarland spent time at the YMCA developing friendships with state senators who had no idea he was homeless before a medical emergency during a snowstorm nearly killed him.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

On April 1, 2011, a snowstorm took much of the Northeast by surprise. But for Steve McFarland, a homeless veteran who had been living in the woods for more than a decade, it was nearly a death sentence.

click image to enlarge

SHELTER: Veteran and former homeless person Steve McFarland speaks about the factors in his life that led him to take part in living in one of three housing units that provide shelter to veterans and adults with disabilities in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

service: A U.S. Marine flag waves beside formerly homeless veteran Steve McFarland at a shelter in Waterville that provides housing for veterans with disabilities.

Staff photo by David Leaming

More than a foot of wet, heavy snow fell in Bangor, sending cars off the road and shutting down power of more than 10,000 area customers. McFarland woke up that morning in his tent, pitched in a patch of woods a few miles outside of town, near the railroad tracks.

He was in great pain — a shooting, sharp pain that went from the base of his spine all the way down to his ankle.

Frightened, McFarland headed for the hospital, about a five-mile walk. In nice weather, when he was healthy, he enjoyed walking into Bangor. There, he would pass time in the library or at the local YMCA, where he took advantage of his membership to shower or do physical therapy for some old injuries.

In the heavy snow, though, with a leg so painful he could barely walk, McFarland thought he might wind up entombed in a snowbank.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to die today,’” he said.

But the storm ultimately became McFarland’s salvation, touching off a chain of events that landed him in a Waterville apartment operated by Community Housing of Maine, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for veterans and disabled adults who have been homeless for extended periods.

The group, the largest provider of housing to the homeless in the state, wants to eliminate long-term homelessness in Maine within four years.

“We could get it done,” Cullen Ryan said. “We could end chronic homelessness in Maine.”

Ryan is the executive director of Community Housing of Maine, a group that, with a staff of just nine people, provides housing to 1,000 people in the state.

While there are about 7,000 homeless people in the state each year, the large majority of them are going through a transition and only homeless for a short period.

The number of people who are homeless for longer periods is much smaller. There were 262 last year, Ryan said.

The organization, which is bolstered through partnerships with the Maine State Housing Authority, the Department of Veterans Affairs programs and other social service agencies, is growing. It owns 10 properties, including three in Waterville, that are dedicated to homeless veterans, housing a total population of 42 veterans at any given time.

The homes are designed not just to shelter veterans, but to be a place where they can be reached with other services, including mental health counseling that they might need to reintegrate into society. The strategy has significant upfront costs, but Ryan said the approach saves the government money. The group undertook a study of some of its own clients and found a net savings of about $4,400 per resident, based on reduced need for emergency services, shelters and detoxification programs.

McFarland’s apartment is spacious and clean, one of four units in an unassuming white house on Gilman Street in Waterville funded by the Maine State Housing Authority. Unlike some public housing projects, the house and its residents are indistinguishable from the houses surrounding it, part of what allows its residents to integrate into the community more successfully, Ryan said.

“They’re some of the best neighbors you could imagine,” he said. “Our people are finding their place within the community. They’re mowing each others lawns, bringing pies over, the whole thing.”

NOWHERE TO GO

McFarland, a Bangor native, now 56, always had struggled to put together a professional career. When he was 18, he joined the Marines for four years, most of which he spent stationed in Okinawa. He didn’t like what he called the barracks life, living among a group of other young men without family or much to do. He and his friends often wound up at the E-Club, a nightclub for enlisted Marines, drinking to pass the time.

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