89-year-old appreciates shelter, but longs for own home

Viola Silver, who turns 90 in May, spent two weeks in December at Maine Medical Center being treated for pneumonia and a lung infection. When the hospital discharged her, she says, it paid a cab to take her home – to the Oxford Street Shelter.

"You have to thank God you have a place to live. It’s cold out," says Silver, who’s been living in the shelter since September with her 56-year-old daughter, Saralyn Silver.

Viola Silver is called "Nanny" by many of the homeless, and it’s shocking to see her on Oxford Street at 7:30 on a recent morning, with outside temperatures dropping to 1 degree above zero, as she determinedly pushes her walker from the shelter to the soup kitchen at the Preble Street Resource Center two blocks away.

Even with her walker, she keeps pace with people decades younger.

She’s admired for her toughness, said Bill Burns, coordinator of Adult Day Shelter Services at the Preble Street Resource Center. Although the homeless people who seek help at the Oxford Street Shelter and the Preble Street Resource Center are an aging demographic, like the rest of the American population, Silver, the shelter’s oldest resident, is an outlier: She’s decades older than the baby boomers who comprise a growing percentage of the homeless in Portland.

As a young woman, Silver worked on farms in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth and later worked as a waitress. She married a man who already had a child, and the couple had four children together. She has been a widow now for 47 years.

She and her daughter were evicted in September from an apartment in Westbrook. They say they were evicted after complaining about mold.

One of her other daughters lives in Portland, but Silver won’t live with her because the rent is paid through the Section 8 housing program, and her daughter is concerned that her presence would violate the program’s rules.

Although Silver appreciates the shelter, she wants more than anything to have her own bed and her own permanent home.

"Being able to have a home is all I live for now," she says.

Josh O’Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter, said it can be a challenge to find housing when an elderly parent and a child want to stay together.

He said case managers at the shelter are working to find permanent housing for the pair.

"They are helping them reach out to landlords and hopeful that they will find housing sooner or later," he says. "We are working every day on it."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at