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Leisa Bouchard has been living on the banks of the Penobscot River in Bangor since she was evicted last spring and couldn’t find another landlord to rent from before her housing voucher expired. When winter arrived, she stayed warm in a tent she built from a tarp and wooden planks she found along the railroad tracks that abut the water.
Now, a pandemic has shut down the society she has been trying to rejoin for nearly a year, putting vulnerable people like her at even greater risk by restricting access to the public spaces they rely on to use the bathroom and buy cheap meals.
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It has only made a difficult life harder for Bouchard and a handful of others who are camping on the Bangor waterfront, amplifying fears and inconveniences that exist every day. On Tuesday morning, the Bangor Daily News spoke to five people without homes, some of whom expressed more concern about the virus than others and shared differing opinions on how the city should help.
One thing held true for all of them: Daily life has been a constant emergency long before the coronavirus cast the nation into crisis.
“I’m sick of living outside. I deserve a home like everyone else,” Bouchard said.
She pulled her red and yellow cotton face mask below her chin so it was easier to talk, but her voice only broke.
“I can’t get off this railroad,” she sobbed.
Adrian McComb, 42, walked over and placed his arms around her as tears rolled down her face.
Their embrace closed the 6-foot gap that public health officials say people should maintain from one another to avoid spreading the virus, but McComb isn’t too worried about getting sick, he said.
“My corona!” he shouted earlier that morning, jokingly to the tune of “My Sharona” by rock group the Knack. He was teasing his tentmate, Matthew Winder, 30, for getting within a foot of him.
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McComb has survived being homeless in Bangor for years. Two summers ago, he was stabbed within an inch of his life at an encampment just downriver from where his tent is now beneath the Penobscot River Bridge.
“If I catch it, I catch it,” he said of COVID-19.
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McComb and the five or so others camping there belong to a small group of the city’s homeless population that have had trouble finding permanent housing. Most of them are outside because they’ve been barred from local shelters or don’t want to comply with their rules.
Still, it’s not easy living, and the coronavirus has beset their day with even more challenges, some of which have further compromised their hygiene at a time when public health officials have stressed the importance of cleanliness. McComb and his friends are making due with limited access to public bathrooms by bagging their excrement in trash bags, he said. They’re taking showers using a black bag with a hose attached, hung on a tree limb near the bridge.
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At least the buses are still running for essential trips, said Winder, who relies on public transportation to get to his methadone clinic.
About 75 feet from the bridge, a man named James, who declined to give his last name, and his girlfriend have pitched their tent at an intentionally far distance from the others. The couple lost their apartment on the first of the month when they couldn’t make their rent, but they didn’t seek out a homeless shelter because they didn’t want to sleep apart, James said. The shelters separate men and women at night. They’ve been together 10 years.
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However, they were also worried about catching the virus at a shelter, where people are sleeping in close quarters, said James, speaking through a light blue surgical mask that was visibly soiled from prolonged use. They both have underlying health issues that could put them at risk of severe illness if they get sick, he said: He smokes and is overweight, and she suffers from seizures.
“I do everything I can to stay away from people,” James said, including the other campers along the river.
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That was true even during last week’s snowstorm, which dumped heavy wet snow on their tent for hours. Fears about the virus meant the couple did not join the others who gathered under the bridge for protection. Instead, they stayed awake all night as the storm raged, beating the inside of their tent with their hands to keep the snow from piling up and collapsing it, James said.
For days after, their bedding was soaked, James said.
As it turned out, McComb and Winder didn’t stay dry, either. When the snow melted, it sent water streaming through a pipe in the bridge and onto their tent. And the weather didn’t let up.
On Monday, a storm’s high winds downed trees and caused power outages across the state. Just three days earlier, on Friday, public health officials announced they had detected community spread of the coronavirus in Penobscot County, a grim sign of its establishment in the region.
Fearing the wind could endanger lives, staff from the Hope House, a local shelter at the center of the city’s larger outbreak prevention efforts, offered to put the campers in a hotel for the night. McComb and Winder accepted, and tied large rocks to their tent so it wouldn’t blow away.
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But again, James and his girlfriend remained, not wanting their belongings to get stolen if they abandoned their tent. They were lucky that a railcar happened to park in front of their tent that night, blocking some of the wind blowing off the Penobscot River.
On Tuesday, after McCoomb and Winder returned, James said he would love a hotel room if he and his girlfriend could stay for a longer period of time. He was pleased to learn that the state is considering the idea as a way to keep people both housed and isolated during the pandemic.
That made James feel hopeful, just like the donations of food, sanitizer and blankets that have been delivered to his tent by outreach workers since the virus hit Maine. Nearby, McCoomb bit into a vanilla cream donut and sipped a beer.
Indeed, James’ greatest fear is that the wider community won’t be as concerned about the homeless when the virus stops spreading and the world begins to return to normal. For those like him, finding a new normal can take longer than expected.
Watch: What does returning to normal look like?