In Maine, some homeless teens find their way to safety and hope at Bangor's Shaw House.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Patryce Bak

Dusk is falling on downtown Bangor, its creeping shadows bringing a chill to the Main Street Corridor, a neighborhood with an unsavory reputation for flophouses, drug dealing, and raucous parties that erupt into violence. On the corner of Union and First, though, there stands a brick fortress known as Shaw House, and within, an oasis of warmth and light.

In a third-floor kitchen, a pair of Bangor High School students named Peter and Christian are setting a table for eight, while Ann Langley, a residential staff member at this shelter for homeless youth, spoons a layer of mashed potatoes into a large pan of shepherd’s pie. The teenagers’ hungry housemates pass in and out of the kitchen, trailing chatter about homework, music, and TV shows, but the conversation keeps coming back to Christian and the mild concussion he suffered the day before when he skateboarded into a car that turned without warning into his path.

It was the driver’s fault, allows Shaw House executive director Sally Tardiff, before gently admonishing in her Scottish brogue, “But you shouldn’t be skating in the middle of the road, Christian.”

“The sidewalk’s worse,” Christian replies.

“You didn’t even have a helmet on,” says Rick Tardiff, Sally’s husband and Shaw House’s program director.

“Sidewalk’s worse,” Christian says again.

“But you didn’t even have a helmet,” Rick persists.

The conversation drifts to other skaters’ accidents, to the status of Peter’s job application at a sandwich shop (he didn’t get it), to the fact that it’s a “manners dinner” night when the residents of Mason Place, as the transitional living quarters on this floor is known, practice elbows off the table and please pass the salt, the successful completion of which might earn them dinner at Olive Garden a few months down the road.

Christian was nonchalant about the accident when he came home yesterday, Ann remarks, but he began feeling sick and tired while doing his chores. She took him to the emergency room, where an MRI revealed the brain injury.

“You’re very lucky,” Rick says, “but a helmet’s good.”

“My board’s broken now, so I’m not going skating anyway,” Christian says. His eyes light up. “Can I have a bike for 
Christmas? Would that be possible — if I asked for a bike for Christmas and that would be the only Christmas present?”

“It could be a possibility,” Sally says, “but we’ll definitely be talking about riding down Main Street in the middle of the road.”

“With a helmet!” her husband adds.

The Tardiffs and the twenty-odd staff members of Shaw House are the closest acquaintances Christian has to caring parents. A slender seventeen-year-old with olive skin, gauged ears, and mirthful dark brown eyes, he has been living in Mason Place for three years, longer than anyone except Peter, who moved in around the same time he did. Christian and Peter are growing up in this former middle school building with six other boys and girls who have their own bedrooms and share a living room and kitchen. They are expected to meet strict curfews, plan and prepare meals, do chores, keep up with their schoolwork, and manage an allowance — rules aimed at nudging them toward responsible, independent adulthood.

One floor down is the sixteen-bed emergency shelter — a living area sandwiched between two large bedrooms, one pink, one blue, outfitted with crate-style bunk beds, dressers, desks, and plastic storage bins. For some kids, it is every bit a home as Mason Place is — they will stay, off and on, for months. Others spend a night or two, then move on.

Both shelters are full every night. Both have waiting lists.

“We don’t see a lot of runaways,” says Rick. “These kids are throwaways. Substance abuse, mental health issues, and, especially these last few years, poverty are the biggest reasons families are having problems today. There is such a strain, and it’s not getting any better.”

It’s a tough time for Maine shelters. Homeless populations, both adult and youth, are on the rise, yet funding for shelters is being cut or has flattened, a consequence of the slow-to-recover economy and of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new priority on moving people out of emergency shelters and into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

The pressure is especially great on youth shelters. Rockland’s Breakwater Emergency Homeless Teen Shelter closed two years ago when the building changed hands, and Skowhegan’s Halcyon House recently folded due to loss of state and federal revenue. That leaves just three shelters specifically serving unaccompanied twelve- to twenty-year-olds (besides Shaw House, they are New Beginnings in Lewiston, and Joe Kreisler Teen Center in Portland). Yet the Statewide Homeless Council estimates that more than nine hundred Maine teenagers experience homelessness each year. Reaching them is hindered by the state’s largely rural nature, and many of them are invisible to those who could help them: They are couch-surfing with friends, sleeping in abandoned houses, or engaging in survival sex — trading sex for food and a place to sleep.

The Tardiffs have been working with young people most of their lives. A Bangor native, Rick is in his early sixties with closely cropped gray hair and a gold ring in each ear. He was working as a photojournalist in Scotland in the 1970s when he met Sally, a program manager for at-risk youth in Glasgow, and joined her team. “When we came to Maine twelve years ago, we thought we were done, but it’s hard to leave this kind of work,” says Sally, likewise sixtyish, with long blonde hair and a round, kind face. “It’s pretty intense, but working with these kids is such a privilege. They are so incredibly resilient. For Rick and me, it’s always been our passion.”

A stairway landing serves as a gallery for Rick’s black-and-white portraits of some of the young people who have passed through Shaw House. Here’s R.J., who started showing up here when he was fifteen. Five years later, he’s got his own place, but he stops by regularly to visit. Here’s Dylan, now a restaurant manager. Here’s Harold, whose behavior once got him kicked out of Shaw House. Now he works at the shelter thirty hours a week.

“Some of them have moved to better places, some not,” Rick says. “We measure success differently here. A lot of these kids come here feeling that adults haven’t given them the best deal possible. Their role models haven’t been good. We try to change that and plant a few seeds along the way — some sort of belief that they can do things. But mainly we keep them safe. That’s number one. If they’re here, they’re off the streets.”

Kids are referred to Shaw House by guidance counselors, police officers, other kids. The shelter has an outreach team that fans out over five rural counties but especially focuses on Bangor, patrolling the places where transients are known to hang out, like Pickering Square and rough camps on the bank of the Penobscot River. The caseworkers meet homeless teens on their terms: Okay, if you won’t sleep at the shelter, will you at least come get some clothes, see a doctor, have a meal?

Each offer that is accepted is an opportunity to alter fate, an opportunity to steer a young life from a dismal path onto one that offers security and promise. Like its partners in Portland and Lewiston, Shaw House aims to put homeless young people in touch with a variety of services — mental health and substance abuse counselors, medical care, educational and career counseling — but it is distinguished by its ability to house all these programs under one roof, available through a drop-in day program that effectively turns the emergency shelter into a twenty-four-hour residence. There is even an in-house school, run by Carleton Project, a private alternative education high school based in Presque Isle.

The continuum of care combined with the institution’s relatively small size make for an intimate atmosphere that defies the stereotype of shelters as harsh, bare-bones environments. “There’s an atmosphere where kids are supporting each other. It’s like a therapeutic community. The emphasis is on respecting each other’s property, taking care of each other, because they’ve all suffered lousy childhoods,” Sally says. “And the kids get to know the staff, including me and Rick, very well. We joke that if the kids aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do or using drugs or getting in trouble, and the case manager can’t get them to make better choices, Rick is the last resort  — it’s kind of ‘Wait ’til your father gets home!’ And the kids respond to it.”

Earlier in the day, Peter had presented Rick with his math exam, a 100 written in red ink at the top. It was a proud moment. He had had difficulties in the class and had sought Rick’s help. It also was a much needed boost for a boy who had recently taken the courageous step of seeking foster care placement only to learn he was too old for the state-managed program.

The residents’ needs are as diverse as the circumstances that drive them here. Since being kicked out of his mother’s house, Aaron, eighteen, has struggled with drug use and a violent temper. He wracked up a rap sheet of assaults, criminal trespasses, and burglaries that landed him at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. “It was scary at first,” he says. “I was one of the youngest ones there.” At the emergency shelter since July, he is getting substance abuse counseling and working toward his high school diploma through the Carleton Project. And he is trying to get a handle on the blinding anger that erupts suddenly and frighteningly. “I met my best friend here and she has helped me out a lot,” he says. “She showed me that I don’t need to be on guard all the time. It’s weird going from being in survival mode all the time to being laid back and chill.”

Confident and wise, Timothy, eighteen, is sought out for counsel and support. Since leaving what he calls an unsafe home two years ago, he has been a facilitator in a substance abuse support group and had jobs selling advertising on placemats, distributing cell phones in a program for low-income consumers, and working in a retail store. He moved to Mason Place from New Beginnings in Lewiston a year ago. He likes the privacy afforded by his own room and the stability that is allowing him to finish high school and move on to college, where he will study business and social work. He also appreciates the companionship of others who have struggled with family problems. “These people are like my family, and in that sense of the word, we’re going to fight, we’re going to have disagreements, but we’re also still going to be there for each other,” he says. “The biggest thing is, you’re not alone. You’re with people who are in the same predicament. There is no judgment, and that makes you more comfortable. If you’re comfortable, you’re going to succeed. I feel pretty comfortable.”

But even the Tardiffs say it is far from perfect. Perfect would be these kids at home with loving families, eating dinner together and getting help with math from mom and dad. Perfect would be no kids living on the streets. It’s not perfect, but on any given night, twenty-four homeless teenagers in Bangor are safe and being offered hope.

Alyx, 18
At Shaw House since May

“I moved out of my mom’s house when I was in eighth grade. I’m transgender, and my mom doesn’t have the same point of view. I moved to my dad’s house in Arizona, and it was pretty much the same thing.

“I’ve known since I was five that there was something severely different about me. I have to be on hormones, living the gender I see myself as consistently for a certain amount of time before my therapist can write a letter to a doctor who specializes in gender reassignment surgery. I’ve been doing it for a year and a half now. I’m on my way.

“When I first came here, a few people gave me a little trouble about it, then nothing after that. I mean, I don’t put up with shit.

“If I work fairly quickly, I’ll graduate in four months. I want to go to UMaine for pre-medical studies. I’ve wanted to go to med school since eighth grade. I’m devoted to it. It’s one of the biggest dreams I have. I want to pursue orthopedic trauma surgery. I’ve always been interested in how things work, and people are extremely intricate and infinitely different.”

Austin, 18
At Shaw House since February

“I lived with my mother in Florida for four years, but my stepfather didn’t want me anymore. He told me to go on the streets, so I came to Maine to be with my real father. When I was a kid, he threw me down a flight of stairs and he choked my mother out. It was horrible. I was trying to forgive him because I’m a Christian, but he was the same man he was before.

“I did stupid things when I first came to Bangor. I did spice when it was legal. Worst thing I’ve ever done. The last time I did it, my friend threatened to slice open my throat if I didn’t smoke it with him. I took one hit and walked off.

“I used to hang out with drug dealers when I was in the shelter, but here in Mason Place Tim has helped me out with everything. He helped me through a lot of the drama. There are a lot of things you have to show you can do to stay here. You get an allowance. You do chores. You could get kicked out for yelling out the window. It’s made me realize that I need to stop hanging out with the wrong people and fulfill my dream to be a musician. I play three instruments — guitar, bass, and drums — and I sing.”

Renee, 18
At Shaw House off and on since 2011

“I love my parents, both of them, but it worked out better for all of us when I left. It was right around Christmas, and I had just turned sixteen. I lived with a friend at first, then I came here. The first couple of nights I was crying all the time. When I finally realized I was going to be here for a while, I started opening up and talking to people more. The staff showed me that it wasn’t that bad to be in a shelter and that all of my problems could be fixed.

“I moved up to Mason Place two months ago. The staff up there is harder on me about the rules and making sure I’m healthy so my baby can be healthy. She is due December 2. Her name is Lillith Marie Dorr, but we’ll call her Lilly because lilies are my favorite flower. The middle name is for Jamie’s Aunt Marie who died of breast cancer.

“I am going to school here at the Carleton Project, and I could graduate anytime from a few months from now to a year from now. Jamie and I want Lilly to be there. We want to show her that she improved our lives, that we didn’t take her as a mistake, we took her as a blessing and a motivation.”

Renee expects to move into a home for expectant and new mothers before her baby is born.

Jamie, 20
At Shaw House off and on since 2011

“I left my home because Renee had nowhere to go. I broke into an abandoned house, and we stayed there for a week. I had to find some way of getting food that I would give to her. I went a whole week without eating. I went home when Renee was allowed back at her dad’s, but that didn’t last and she ended up here. It got to a point when there were too many people at my mom’s house, so I went off on my own too.

“I’ve been working as a crossing guard, but it’s part time, so I’m trying to pick up another job. I’m trying to save money so I can get a place for us after our baby is born. Shaw House has given me a stable place until I can figure something out. I don’t want to be one of those people called a deadbeat dad. I want to give my daughter anything she wants. I don’t want to risk her being taken away either. I was put into foster care for the first year of my life, and I don’t want her to go through that.

“A lot of people ask me if I’m scared or if I even want to be in the picture. Let’s just say, most of those people I’m not even associated with anymore.”

Kayla, 18
At Shaw House since May 2012

“I was living on my own, renting a room up on Union Street. My parents were kind of helping me, but I was supposed to take over. It was stressful being on my own at sixteen. When I was laid off from my job, I couldn’t keep the room. I was hanging out with some people down at the square, and somebody told me to come up here. A week later I moved into the shelter.

“Things got so much easier when I came here. I was able to focus on school and work and not worry about rent or other things. I had to fix up some things to be accepted into Mason Place. I hadn’t been going to class, so I had to work to get up here. I graduated high school this past May.

“Now I’m going to University of Augusta at Bangor. I’m going for vet tech. It’s a three-year program, and I’m planning on staying here as long as I can so I can go to college full time and get as much of that set aside as I can. In the meantime, I’m working on the weekends, managing a business, Charlotte Lorraine’s Consignment Boutique, and trying to save up for a car. I can work more if I have a car instead of taking the bus.

“And, I’m patching things up with my family.”

Jordan, 19
At Shaw House since January

“My stepfather wanted me out, so my mother decided I would go live with my grandmother in Miami for a while. That was a pretty tough time. I grew up on Swan’s Island and it was hard to adjust to the city. I started using drugs, and my grandmother didn’t approve, so I came back to Maine.

“I met this nice guy, and we started going out — I’m bisexual — but he was abusive. I talked to the people at Shaw House and they wanted me to move in as soon as possible, but I kept giving him chances and chances. Then we got into a big fight, and I ended up getting arrested. I knew no one in the area, so I decided to stop by Shaw House again and see what they had to offer.

“I love it here. There are ups and downs, but you’ve got to expect that. When I was in Miami, I got into some things I shouldn’t have been in, and I developed problems with substances. I’ve gotten help for that here. I’m getting help for depression and some other things that I’m not going to get into. Today I’m a different person. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without their help.”