How a homeless alcoholic found hope in Portland

When he was coming of age, Ben Skillings needed someone who genuinely cared about and respected him to sit him down, look him in the eyes, and tell him that he was completely full of shit.

Ben Skillings. Photo- David Harry, The Forecaster.

Ben Skillings. Photo- David Harry, The Forecaster.

 “I was looking at prison time and doing a lot of crazy things that I wouldn’t normally do- toting guns around Portland and hanging out with friends that sold drugs and got into various other types of trouble,” said Skillings in a Sunday, Feb. 15 interview.

“I really didn’t belong in that world, my friends knew it and I knew it.”

Skillings struggled with dependency issues and homelessness for many years before coming to terms with his problems:

“I have been an alcoholic from a young age and tried many times to quit on my own, or by going to counseling.”

Ben4“I have been homeless and jobless and drunk. What had to happen for me was a couple things, first I had to scare myself enough to realize I could no longer live the way I was living.”

Countless people had been trying to get him to realize it for years, beginning with Dr. Stanley Evans at the Mercy Recovery Center at Mercy Hospital in Portland.

Skillings recalled the first time het met Dr. Evans in 1998 at the tender, yet hardened age of 17:

“The first time I saw Dr. Evans I was a teenager. He told me I was full of shit and I was gonna’ die if I didn’t stop drinking and acting like an idiot.”

Dr. Evans passed away last year, but Skillings remembers him fondly:

“He was the addictions guru for this area for a long time. Any real messed up drug addict or alcoholic from back in the day has met him.”

” What he said really stuck with me.”

Now 33 years old, Skillings isn’t just sober and healthy, he’s continuing the work of people like Dr. Evans in his role as a local peer coach at the Amistad agency on State Street in Portland.


“I currently have about 40 people on my list and have worked with over 100 in 3 1/2 years.”

“A lot of my work is connecting people with needed resources like primary care or psychiatry. If they don’t have a case manager I will do case management until we find them one.”

More important, perhaps, than the case management help is the role of friend and advocate:

“Many folks benefit from having me there as an advocate because people with mental illness and substance abuse issues often get treated like second class citizens.”

 “They also have trouble understanding what’s going on or voicing their needs and concerns. I am there to ensure they get their needs met and are treated with respect and get the services that are right for them.”

Skillings credits his work with giving him the hope he needed to turn his life around, and regards his real-world experiences as vital to his ability to connect with his patients:

“I have been at my worst so many times so when I see other people at their worst it doesn’t cause me to judge them or treat them any different. I try to treat everyone with respect and I believe that everybody has the ability to recover.”

According to Melissa Skahan, Vice President of Mission Integration at Mercy Health Systems, “Ben Skillings has been an absolute Godsend, his real world experience and first-hand understanding of the confusion, frustration, and helplessness that a lot of our patients are dealing with is just absolutely vital to getting them the care that they need.”

“I haven’t seen anybody be able to do what Ben does for us, and it’s because of the lessons that he learned when he was going through his own difficult times.”

Skillings thinks it’s more about giving people a purpose:

“People need ongoing support and they need to be connected with something that makes them feel worthwhile.”

“Finding meaning in life outside of the bottle or a pill or whatever, that’s what most of my work entails- following up with people, building a connection and helping them move forward- towards something that gives them meaning.”

While helping people has given his own life a purpose, he’s found a way to help his patients find meaning in their own.

Skillings has started a network of people recovering from addiction and a program that brings them into hospitals to raise the spirits of patients recovering from drug overdoses.


But this program does a lot more than simply put smiles on a few faces, this program saves lives.

Said Skillings:

“The recovery period in the hospital is probably the time when they are the most vulnerable and the window is open.”

He continued:

“A visit from a recovered addict in the hospital doesn’t mean a whole lot to the overdose patient except to remind them that there is hope, and recovery is possible.”

“Hope can be lost in an instant and if there’s nothing for them to lean on, or if they lack the skills needed for dealing with their emotions or life problems, they will use again unless they have genuine support.”

A drug addict jabs her arm repeatedly to shoot up heroin, under a bridge in Portland, Maine.

Peter Driscoll, executive director at Amistad, said Skillings gives his clients what they can’t get elsewhere, an authentic relationship.

“He’s not asking about their diagnosis,” Driscoll said in a 2014 interview with MPBN.

“He’s doesn’t expect them to follow a treatment plan. He’s meeting them where they are. And he’s a peer, so he’s had the same lived experience that they’ve had, so that really is the basis for their genuine relationship.”

“I love what I do, it feels great to help people in tough spots get back on their feet,” said Skillings, “but this job, working with people in recovery and people in need, was exactly what I needed to get my own life together.”

“I just needed a little hope, some support from people who had seen me at my worst, and a purpose.”

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.