Cold road to finding home: Angel’s story
Looking at the neatly arranged peppermint candles, bowls of seashells and polished stones that decorate his tidy one-room-apartment, there’s no indication that he spent most of his life living on the streets. His face beams through framed portraits on clean white walls, belying the nature of his past, and his name is spelled out colorfully in letter magnets stuck to the fridge. Angel, it reads.
Though at first glance his easy smile and eager demeanor seem to suggest that everything has always been OK for him in life, Angel has never had it easy. As a kid growing up in Hartford, Conn., he suffered immense physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather, emotional neglect from his mother and spent months in a coma after being launched through the windshield of speeding car. After years of moving around the Northeast with his family and battling onsets of mental illness, Angel stopped going to high school.
“I was doing bad things,” he said.
When his family moved back to their native Puerto Rico and his ex-girlfriend kicked him out of her house, the tenuous support keeping Angel on his feet gave way, and he found himself reeling on the street with nowhere to go. As the winter winds began to wash through Pittsfield, Mass., a tougher phase of Angel’s life began—checkered with stints in jail, drug abuse and biting nights in the cold.
“I started sleeping in an auto body shop,” he said with a matter of fact nod. “I couldn’t shower for six months. If I got wet, I’d get pneumonia.”
When the winter ice began to melt, Angel would begin to wander. From subway cars and parks in New York City to shelters in Worchester and alleys in Boston, Angel wandered the East coast for years, sleeping where he could.
“Then, I got word of a good shelter up in Maine,” he said with a grin. Though he didn’t get along with some of the guests when he arrived at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter (MMHS), something changed in Angel’s heart as soon as he began his life in Waterville.
“I don’t know what happened to me in Maine, but my whole heart changed around,” he said.
Angel began volunteering to help guests move from the Shelter into permanent housing, washing dirty pots stacked in the sink and sweeping up dusty rooms. He also would offer new guests at the shelter tours of Waterville, showing them where they could get their library cards, redeem food stamps and seek warmth during the day when MMHS closed its doors.
“I had to change my way of living,” he said with his fingers laced on his lap. “I even started ironing my clothes.”
Living in the Shelter provided Angel with the support he needed to make the changes he wanted in his life and lent him a shoulder to lean on as he fought to get back to his feet.
At the age of 44, Angel has finally found a warm corner of the world he can call his own. He has a part-time job doing custodial work, attends weekly sessions with a counselor and has become an active member of his church—but more importantly, Angel has a hard-earned set of walls around him and a sturdy roof over his head. Through the Bridge Rental Assistance program, the State helps Angel pay a percentage of his monthly rent, and through the I-Hope program in Waterville, Angel receives a free membership to a gym he now frequents.
“I spent a nice day today exercising, dusting my apartment, drinking coffee and living life at home. I’m actually a neat freak now,” he said with a chuckle. “And I don’t even know what the inside of the courthouse in Waterville looks like!”
Angel volunteers his time at an overflow homeless shelter and still maintains his connections with MMHS. “I’m grateful for everything they’ve done for me,” he said, eyeing an old coffee pot he got as a reward for his generous behavior at the Shelter, its polished and sparkling sheen showing its age.
“Life is peaceful here,” Angel said. “My rent comes before everything so I don’t have to sleep with one eye open anymore.”
With more than a year of sobriety and work experience under his belt, Angel recently splurged on a new TV that he uses to watch his favorite movie, Scarface. In his free time, he loves to cook rice and beans and relax on his couch. He’s learned to appreciate a quiet life of giving and has simple hopes for the future—to stay in Maine, keep exercising, continue his counseling and help others who aren’t as well off.
“Life is hard to live,” he said. “So I like helping people.”
The nature of Angel’s mistakes and his decades spent on the downside of advantage remain in the sincerity of his convictions about helping others and his calculated maintenance of a life he has grown to love. Though he now sits on a cushioned couch, surrounded by fresh painted walls and cups of seashells, the lessons of his experience and the gravity of his transformation are not lost on him.
“The way I changed my life around—I love it,” he said. “You’ve always got to be grateful and carry on.”