Finding Their Voice

Homeless Voices for Justice Advocates for Social Change

Originally published in “The Blue Room.”

JimJim Devine leans forward in his chair, shakes some loose tobacco onto his coffee table and begins rolling himself a cigarette. Winter is winding down, and late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows of his Old Port apartment in the former CM Rice Paper Company building.

Jim’s mother used to work in the very building he now calls home. His studio contains the remnants of an old elevator shaft, which is where he makes his office. Yellow painted walls give way to exposed brick. Bottles and jars of amber, blue and green glass line the windowsills, reflecting soft prisms of light.

He pauses, as he rolls, to speak. He has the half rolled cigarette in one hand, but sets it down as he uses his hands to emphasize his points. Jim has more than a year of sobriety behind him and for the first time in a long time, his own apartment. He is an electrician by trade. But, his drinking, which began college, escalated to the point where he found himself out of work and eventually, homeless.

Jim is proof that homelessness can happen to anyone, and he shared that wisdom with students at Cheverus High School a few years ago when he and a group of people from Preble Street’s Consumer Advocacy Project spoke to them about violence against homeless people. Jim, a graduate of the same private Jesuit high school himself during the 1970s, said to them bluntly, “I was just like you, and it happened to me.”

Jim joined Preble Street’s Consumer Advocacy Project, now called Homeless Voices for Justice in 2002. He was getting back on his feet in Portland and wanted to help others do the same.

“I’ve been on the street,” Jim says. “It’s all been episodic, it’s all been driven by alcoholism.”

Jim describes his battle with alcoholism as a merry-go-round. Every time he felt he was out of options he turned to alcohol. In college at the University of Maine in Orono, he says he became a full-time partier and eventually dropped out, instead following in his father’s footsteps as an electrician.

He relates being homeless to feeling totally alone—bankrupt without hope.

Since its inception, Homeless Voices for Justice has registered more than 1,000 homeless and low income residents to vote, launched a campaign to prevent illegal evictions from lodging houses—persuading the city to enact a new ordinance that requires this type of housing to be licensed, and led the way for the passage of new bill, signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci, that prolongs sentences for those convicted of hate crimes against the homeless.

The original group was formed in 1995 and is led by people who’ve struggled themselves, with homelessness and poverty. Their mission is to achieve social change for other homeless people. The group believes that the only way for change to occur is by having the people who are directly affected by an unjust system address those injustices.

For advocate dee Clarke, who prefers to spell her first name with lowercase letters, being homeless was a pattern from her youth she was determined not to repeat with her own children. Homeless with her mother and siblings at a young age in Boston, dee says she didn’t have anyone to teach her the “right way” to live.

She describes the adults in her childhood as being corrupt and says that looking back, it’s hurtful that no one intervened when they saw her involved in adult situations, or when her father’s family saw her and her siblings living on the street. Getting involved with advocacy work saved her life, she says. dee began working with the People’s Organization to Win Economic Rights or POWER, and after a short hiatus began working as a consumer advocate.

“For me personally as a kid, I think I just needed some really good adults in my life,” she says from her Walker Street apartment in Portland as spring sunlight warms her living room. “There were really no healthy people interested in my wellbeing.”

Walking a tightrope

Jim, who is now back to work, says balancing his advocacy work with his job as an electrician can sometimes be challenging. In addition to these commitments he also makes time for his music. Jim plays at several open mic nights around the city, and in late February he played for the last time at A Company of Girls on Mayo Street. The weekly event, hosted by the People’s Free Space, was the last before the building changed ownership.

When it’s his turn to perform, Jim casually straps his acoustic guitar over his shoulder and makes his way to the center of the old church. Wearing a red flannel over a t-shirt, his sandy hair, flecked with gray, is pulled back into a ponytail. Jim sings with his eyes closed behind his glasses—only opening them in between songs. His wiry frame sways with the beat and his fingers gently strum the strings of his guitar. His voice swells as he sings songs by the Grateful Dead and Gillian Welsh.

After his set is over Jim heads outside for a smoke. He’s feeling the stress of keeping up with his work at Preble Street and balancing his other commitments as he prepares for a big meeting the next day.

“I’m walking a tightrope and I may fall off,” he says, “I’ve fallen before.”

Since getting sober he has found new ways to relax. Jim belongs to a Buddhist group and chants for about 20 minutes a day in front of an alter he created in his apartment. He plays conga drums and formerly belonged to a drum circle on Brackett Street. He reads books about non-violent communication and meets with a group every couple of weeks to discuss positive communication methods, which he says are helpful at Preble Street. Jim admits to being a joiner and said a friend once teased him that he belonged to every group except the Girl Scouts.

To maintain his position as an advocate, he must dedicate a certain amount of time to his work, including weekly strategy meetings with the other six members of the group.

Jim says in the past he has become overwhelmed and returned to drinking, but right now he remains clear, dedicated to his work and to making a difference.

“I’ve had mixed success,” Jim says as he takes a drag off his cigarette. “Right now I’ve had over a year’s sobriety, and right now I don’t plan on getting involved in any disasters, but I can’t get complacent.”

Undoing my life

dee finds helping others therapeutic.

“It’s like I’m completely undoing my life,” she says. By helping others, she’s righting the wrongs of her past and learning that she’s not the only woman who’s been raped, beaten or held against her will. dee encourages people to think of these things before judging others. It’s not apparent what they’ve been through, just by looking at someone.

“Most homeless people blend in,” says dee, “except when they’re standing in front of Preble Street.”

Against the advice of shelter officials, dee helped a woman she befriended from the shelter get on her feet. dee rented the woman a room in her home, connected her with services she was eligible for and reunited her with her family. It’s a decision she doesn’t regret.

“That was the best thing I did,” says dee, “even better than getting a law passed.”

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In his backpack, Jim carries around several brightly colored folders. Each one includes a wealth of information about legislation, programs and services and various news article written about issues affecting homeless people. He likes to keep on top of new information and refers to the folders often as he speaks pulling out pages related to the topics he discusses.

Jim says it’s important to help people get off the street first, to house them first, then help them tackle their other problems like alcoholism or mental illness. He is advocating for both a “housing first model” and more emergency assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services for people who are threatened with homelessness. Most people, he says, are just two paychecks away from finding themselves in such a situation.

With a housing first model, Jim says nights in jail, stints in detox, contact with police and nights in shelters have dropped significantly—and people’s income and quality of life has increased.

“I see our efforts going all the way across the state and really making a difference,” Jim says of the future of Homeless Voices for Justice. “Homelessness is not just a Portland problem, it’s not just a big city problem.”

Healing a broken spirit

At the Maine College of Art in February with Jim and the other members of Homeless voices for Justice in the audience, dee speaks to a crowd of people gathered to for the opening of a new art project, Kaddish for the Dispossessed—which addresses violence against homeless people. She uses the analogy of broken leg not being properly fixed to explain how people can become damaged by the circumstances of their lives. If a broken bone isn’t set correctly, it won’t function like it did before. It’s the same with emotional damage, she explains.

She doesn’t need a microphone. Her voice carries through the room as she details the devastating events of her childhood in the third person. She speaks of physical and sexual abuse and the basic mentality of a child trying to navigate alone in an adult world without the proper education and emotional tools. It’s not until the end of her delivery she reveals that the little girl she has been referring to is actually her.

dee spent much of her childhood in foster care, at the New England Home for Little Wanderers—the countries oldest child and family service agency, and on the streets of Boston’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Her Native American mother suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and was often unable to care for the children.

“I think the biggest thing is that my life as a child was horrendously harmful and it produced a really sad, hurt, self destructive youth,” says dee.

She was sexually abused in foster care and ran away, only to be held captive by another man. She came to Portland in 1978 with a Chinese man who barely spoke any English. The couple made their home in a Forest Avenue apartment and had two children, now grown (she has a third child still at home). After finding herself in a shelter for battered women with her kids, dee realized that she was heading down a familiar path.

“Disappointing your kids, that was the hardest thing,” muses dee. “I’d rather be taking my kids to the library or to swimming lessons than sitting in the shelter.”

It was a friend that directed dee to seek help and she was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a turning point for her. She was beginning to have flashbacks of some of the most painful parts of her childhood as she watched her children become the age she was when a traumatic event happened to her.

dee sought out new friends, which she says helped her realize there was a different, more positive way to live than how she was raised.

“They were modeling for me without knowing it, modeling a normal life,” she says of making new friends in Portland. “In the mist of that I was healing, and I’m healthy about it now. I don’t get messed up about it.”

Though Jim and Dee admit that sometimes, strong personalities disrupt the harmony of the advocates from time to time, for the most part they are a cohesive group providing a lifeline to hundreds of people who are navigating a road they’re all too familiar with.

“We spend a lot of time working together on not very easy things, but we work quite well together. The fact that we are able to function at all says a lot,” Jim says. “Being a team is what community is all about to me.”

dee says it hard to not want to participate in other smaller ways, like working one on one with homeless individuals more directly. But, the advocates are working toward the bigger picture, helping disenfranchised people become empowered and gain leadership skills while organizing and advocating for institutional change.

“We’re there to do systematic change,” dee says. “We’re afforded that opportunity because we’ve been through it.”

— Brandi Neal

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