Keep Preble Street miracle from disappearing

A cynic might read Dovid Muyderman’s story-turned-screenplay, in which two young Jewish brothers live in a homeless shelter by night and pull straight A’s at Portland High School by day, and scoff that it’s too far-fetched — stuff like that just doesn’t happen out there in the real world.

Except it did.

"This is eerie," said Muyderman, 31, as he and Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, stepped inside the Portland social service agency’s Lighthouse Shelter for homeless teenagers Thursday morning. "This is very familiar ground. It’s changed a little bit, but it’s got the same feel."

What kind of feel?

"It’s a place to sleep, for sure," Muyderman replied. "And a place to go to that’s safe and usually has food and resources and is really proximal to the school, which was good for us."

He’s talking about himself and his older brother, Josh. Their story, which Dovid Muyderman hopes soon will be on a screen near you, is proof positive that kids without a home need not be kids without hope.

"We call these things ‘Preble Street miracles,’" said Swann, who last week launched a campaign to move the aging shelter for teenagers to a bigger and better building at the nearby corner of Preble Street and Cumberland Avenue. "For these guys to be wanting their story to be public and get this film made — at the same time we’re trying to relocate and improve services (to homeless teenagers) — it’s just such a boost for us, it really is."

How these two brothers came to be homeless is, to put it mildly, complicated: Their parents, both orthodox Jews, divorced after having five children. Mom remained in the family home in central Maine, while Dad went first to Europe for a year and then rented an apartment on Portland’s India Street.

Josh and Dovid, the two oldest kids, lived with each parent at various times. But in a 12-minute documentary Dovid produced earlier this year for the Maine Jewish Film Festival, he offers a painfully simple explanation for why, at 14 and 15, respectively, he and Josh found themselves living on the streets of Portland.

"Some people just aren’t cut out to breed," he says in the short film, adding that his parents didn’t "know how to put themselves on the back burner, which is what you have to do" when there are kids involved.

One evening in 1994, concerned that the two boys clearly had nowhere to spend the night, a social worker at the Portland Boys & Girls Club directed Josh and Dovid to the Lighthouse Shelter for teenagers on nearby Elm Street. Operated back in those days by the Salvation Army, the three-story, 16-bed haven would become their home for almost two years.

Swann, a staffer at nearby Preble Street, occasionally moonlighted as an overnight supervisor at the teen shelter.

"I distinctly remember these two young brothers who stuck together, kept their heads down and went up early to do their homework long before the other kids went upstairs," Swann recalled.

And each morning, while the other kids scurried over to the Preble Street soup kitchen for breakfast, Josh and Dovid would grab their books, their completed homework and walk up the short hill and across Cumberland Avenue to Portland High School. Even as they consistently posted A’s up and down their transcripts, few among their teachers and fellow students ever knew they were homeless.

Why school? Why not just hang out at Preble Street, or the Portland Public Library, or one of the other daily haunts for kids who for whatever reason find themselves going nowhere fast?

"Because that was the only way out," Dovid replied, pointing up toward the high school. "The only way out of this situation was across the street."

It worked.

Josh, at age 16, graduated from Portland High in 1995 with a Brown Medal — awarded to the five boys and five girls with the highest academic achievement in their class. Soon thereafter, he packed his bags at the Lighthouse Shelter and headed for Columbia University, where he’d been awarded a full scholarship.

From there, Josh continued on to medical school at Cornell University. He now works as an emergency room doctor at a hospital in Hagerstown, Md., where he lives with his wife and one child.

Dovid went on to become a Horatio Alger National Scholar at Portland High, attended New York University and graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in media studies.

He now lives on Munjoy Hill with his wife and two daughters and works as an analyst for GovernanceMetrics International in Portland.

In short, the brothers Muyderman survived — and then some.

Earlier this year, starting with a memoir Josh wrote about their life on the streets, Dovid sat down with screenwriter Damion Rallis to produce a 92-page screenplay. He named it "Lighthouse."

The film, narrated a la "Forrest Gump," centers on brothers "Joseph" and "Jake" as they navigate their anything-but-typical passage from scared kids to overachieving young adults. If all goes according to plan, on-location shooting will start early next year at the shelter, Portland High School, the Preble Street Teen Center on Cumberland Avenue and elsewhere around downtown Portland.

"You couldn’t write the proximity of all these locations," said Dovid, who will direct the film. "There’s not another city in the country that has the homeless shelter, the high school, the library and the soup kitchen all in two blocks."

A hefty chunk of the film’s proceeds will go to Preble Street, which needs all the help it can get as it leverages a $1 million grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation into a $3.5 million fundraising campaign for the new shelter.

Preble Street’s plans call for 24 beds compared to the 16 at the current shelter, where Swann says demand these days has grown to the point where latecomers are now turned away for lack of space "two out of every three nights."

Which, from where Dovid now sits, is unacceptable.

"If you’ve never been homeless, it’s hard to imagine the feeling of not having a place to sleep," he said. "It’s a devastating feeling having no place to go."

Especially when you’re 14.

So, want to help get this movie made?

Go to the film’s website and check out "The Cause." And while you’re at it, stop by Preble Street‘s site and click on "You Can Help."

"The whole purpose of making this film is to try and see if we can increase tolerance of homeless people in general," Dovid said. "To see if there’s a way we can change opinions, especially of the teens."

The shelter, which Preble Street took over in 2004, sat pin-drop silent as he spoke — it opens at 8 each night and empties no later than 8 the next morning. But even in the stillness, Dovid could hear echoes of his and his brother’s past.

"If this place had not existed, we would have just been bouncing around," he said. "And who knows? … Who knows?"

That’s easy — at least in movie terms.

Without the Lighthouse, this "Preble Street miracle" fades to black.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at