Service and Sacrifice: Portland's Preble Street Refuses to Give up on Homeless Veterans

On any given day, dozens gather outside in Portland’s Bayside area, waiting to get inside the Preble Street Resource Center and soup kitchen for a meal.

As Homeless Veteran Al Libby puts it, “if you’re hungry enough, you’ll appreciate it.” And, although he says he appreciates the food, and the warm place to sleep, Libby would prefer to have his own place, “I hate to think I gotta live in the shelter all winter.”

But for 61-year old Libby, it’s the only option. The Rumford native is trying to get back home. He is bi-polar and a veteran.

“I had a place, I just couldn’t afford it. So I just packed up and moved out.”

“It’s a shame that we’re out here. You know another shame is, we gave so much,” former Navy Seal John Donovan shared. He served in the Persian Gulf War. Now he has PTSD and calls Portland’s streets his home. “Military is, I mean I’m grateful for it, but it’s hard on you, it’s hard on our mind more than anything than your body. Just your thoughts.”

For years after his military discharge, Donovan bounced from town to town, state to state, looking for shelter, a job and help. And, Donovan is quick to point out, he is not alone. “Over 60 thousand veterans are homeless. One point four million veterans are at risk of being homeless,” Donovan shared. “You give your heart and soul and these veterans that are out here are alone, they’re scared, I can guarantee you that, and they drink to kill the pain.”

“I sleep out of doors every night, even in the snow,” explained Mark Thomas, an army veteran who lives in Portland. “I slept if it was 15 below zero with the wind chill factor was 30 degrees below zero. I crawl right into that sleeping bag, snuggled up into a doorway down in the old port. Yeah, I do.”
Thomas is 59. He’s college educated and doesn’t like to talk about his service, which took him to 10 foreign countries. He worked in construction in Maine on a variety of projects. “Anything that was big. Houses, mostly buildings.”

Thomas worked until his health deteriorated. Three years ago he had a tracheotomy for throat cancer. Doctors are worried he may have it again. Still, Thomas insists on sleeping outdoors and doing his best to fend for himself.

And this insistence on not asking for help appears to be a part of a larger issue that veterans deal with. “The message that a lot of the people that we serve have internalized is that they’re not worth caring about, that they do deserve sleeping out on the street, or all of the host of medical conditions they have to experience,” explained Bill Burns, Health Services Director at Preble Street—the state of Maine’s largest outreach for the homeless. Burns says that now that winter’s coming, it’s critical to find homeless veterans who are hiding in clear sight.

“Down by the waterfront, in the morning, seven o’clock every week the team is out there engaging folks, trying to get them to come inside, come to services to get the help they need,” Burns said, adding “and suggesting an alternative to sleeping in doorways, sleeping on the wharf and engaging in lots of stuff that’s pretty dangerous.”

Preble Street’s veterans program is unique in that it offers shelter, food and where possible job placement help. It’s what’s known as “low barrier”. Burns says it allows people to get the care they need without bureaucratic or administrative roadblocks. “What Preble street has been really good at doing is kind of developing solutions to community problems. As opposed to saying ‘this is terrible, veteran homelessness is through the roof, or this terrible thing is happening and there’s nothing we can do, well let’s figure out a way.”

A big piece of that solution is getting to the veterans where they are; without judgment. As Burns points out, “nobody grows up dreaming of flying a sign down on Marginal Way; that, nobody dreams of that. So how do we connect people with the person they were before they started experiencing homelessness?”

Reaching that person requires peeling back many layers, taking veterans to a place before the trauma of war. And, as Bill Burns sees it, that can only be accomplished one veteran at a time and requires buy in from an entire community. “I think if you’re serious about building community, if you’re serious about transforming the world, you’ve got to start where you are and you’ve got to start with people who most people have given up on for one reason or another. And, um, we don’t give up.”

Which is encouraging news. Last year, Preble Street provided 377 veteran households with services and had contact with 421 veterans. For information on the Preble Street homeless veterans outreach program and how you can help, contact them at: (207) 956-6556 or Toll Free at (800) 377-5709. You can also email them at: