A Continental Living Abroad in a Homeless Shelter

October 19, 2015

Photo By: Christina Berube, BAHS

Much has been made by some who inhabit the far right of America’s Republican Party or who are members of a subgroup of the Libertarians about the flood of welfare seekers who seek Maine out due to our “overly generous benefits.”  The following little story is offered to support that claim, at least in the case of one male adult from away.  Except for the name given and a few of the details, the following is true:

Henry Overstreet came hurtling at the guards’ station at the Quebec/Maine border crossing where Coburn Gore and St-Augustin-de-Woburn meet, several kilometres southeast of Lac Megantic late morning of an early December day in 1997.  He had his circa early 70’s Peugot maxed to almost 90 kph as he approached the relatively flimsy gate, and the two guards on duty dove for cover just before splintering contact.  By the end of the day the following facts had been established: no one was seriously hurt; there was about $25,000 worth of property damage;  Henry’s car would still run, although a little less safely and quietly than pre-crash; and Henry possessed neither Canadian nor United States citizenship papers.  It was not yet clear why he had been in such a hurry to cross the border.

We got a call from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in early January.  Could we house Henry in our shelter for a little while?  The County was working with INS to determine exactly who Mr. Overstreet might be.  Naively we replied, “Of course!”  And so Henry Overstreet was delivered to our door on a freezing cold January morning in 1998.  He had the clothes he was wearing, including a donated men’s winter topcoat complete with a fur collar, a toothbrush and a razor and a few more personal care items, and nothing else.  He came without legal identification.  We started by having to take everything he reported at face value.

Initially at least, Henry was entertaining.  He professed to be an engineer from London, England (not Ontario), who had decided to go on vacation.  He explained that when he had arrived in Halifax late in the previous summer he had intended to research some sites in the Province of Quebec that had important caches of early alchemists’ charts and equipment located in mysterious and hidden caves and hillsides.  He wanted his car returned to him.  He wanted to be paid for the time he had had to spend in jail (gaol).  He damn well wanted to be granted the global respect he was due, and he wanted to know just why in hell he was now forced to suffer in the squalor of an emergency homeless shelter!!  To sum it all up, Henry (if that was in fact his name) was a challenge and a demanding sob who was only one of 30 or so others every day and night.

As shelter staff couldn’t meet Henry’s every need or whim, we decided a perfect stopgap measure would be to make him someone else’s problem as much as possible while we waited for the wheels of international security and diplomacy to grind to an answer.  Judy was a very dedicated caseworker from a partner agency, and she took to working with Henry like a bear coming out of hibernation takes to a beehive in cavitation habitat—at least for a little while.  By late April Judy was, at times anyway, even more tired of Henry than we were.  Somehow we all hung in until mid-May when she shared with us the miraculous letter stating that all we had to do was deliver Henry back to the guards’ headquarters on the Maine/Quebec border and he would be our burden no more.  (Please know that I have not tried to paint a clear or dense portrait of exactly how full Mr. Overstreet was of himself—to do so would have transformed this little blog piece into a short story of significant length.)

So on a Thursday morning in the first week of June, plans were set for Judy to chauffeur Henry the four-hours-on-a-good-day drive northwest.  Launch was scheduled for 1:00 p.m.  With ours being a dry shelter, Henry consumed the six-pack he had purchased at the Hannaford’s down the road in the middle of our parking lot, sitting on a chair made from crates and pulling cold ones as needed from the cheap Styrofoam cooler he had purchased along with the Budweiser.  Throughout the afternoon we wondered how many times Judy might have had to pull over to give Henry roadside pee breaks.

So yes, naysayers—some people probably do in fact relocate for purposes of welfare fraud.  We see many folks who get us shaking our heads—but not at them for clearly and ably planning on stealing benefits from the supply funded with hard working voters’ taxes.  We see impulsive 20-somethings who grew up in multiple and harsh non-family settings.  We meet single adults so impaired with chronic, major mental illness that they wouldn’t sit still for an evaluation and thus have no access to medical care they wouldn’t trust.  And every great once in a while we get to laugh while we’re struggling to work with someone who acts completely contrary to their own deserved interests. 

So yeah—some people, in addition to asylum seekers and people fleeing domestic violence and elderly people who have been evicted from their homes in some other town-- come here from away to take advantage of what we offer.  And I really don’t think that’s a bad thing.