This is the fifth entry in a series titled, “Ties that Bind.” Links to the previous four entries can be found at the bottom of this story.
A select few of the people living in the Land of the Mohicans are there because they want to be. For whatever reasons they’ve never felt comfortable conforming to the norms of society, and have chosen to live in solitude.
The majority of people, though, are there because the only other options they have are staying at the homeless shelters or on the streets of downtown Portland- both of which can take a swift toll on people’s mental and emotional stability.
Fifty-four year old Phil is there for neither of those reasons. He’s there because it’s one of the only places that he’s welcome, one of the few places he feels safe.
“I’ve lived a hard life, and I’ve made some horrible mistakes,” Phil reflected softly, “now I’m just trying to do right by God, help the few people that I’m able to help, and take life day by day.”
From the moment of his conception, Phil’s life has been marred by trauma.
At the age of 14, his mother was raped and impregnated. He never met his father. After two younger sisters came along to different men, his mother married around the age of 19 or 20.
For all the hardships he and his sisters had faced growing up with a troubled, teenage single mother, nothing would compare to the abuse from his step-father.
“My step-dad raped my little sisters from the time they were about five years old and into their teens,” said Phil as he stared blankly at the ground.
“He used to force me to have sex with them too.”
By the time he came of age in his late teens, Phil had gained the strength he needed to leave the horrifically abusive household.
“One night at dinner my step-dad sexually assaulted one of my sisters right at the table,” he said with his voice rising, “that was the end of my rope. I got up and left, and never spoke to him again.”
But the torment caused by his traumatic upbringing would not end there.
While no single factor or cause has yet to be identified for what leads a person to cause sexual abuse, sexual offenders have higher rates of abuse in their history than the general population.
After leaving home, Phil worked in various manual labor jobs for years. He struggled with many of the issues that victims of childhood abuse struggle with including mental health problems and alcoholism.
Then, at the age of 32, he committed a crime that he knows he’ll never be able to live down, take back, or make right.
“In 1993 I did something horrible, and I ended up on the sex offender registry,” he said remorsefully.
In 1994 Phil was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct with a person under the age of 14.
“I spent 17 months in county jail for the trial and sentencing, then I spent two years in the correctional center in Windham.”
He doesn’t make excuses for his mistake, in fact he seems to carry the burden from the pain he caused with him to this day.
“I’m regarded as a very dangerous person by the state of Maine,” he said with direct eye contact, “and I deserve the punishment that I’ve received.”
Since his release from prison nearly two decades ago Phil has not re-offended, but he has been arrested four times for failing to notify local officials of his presence upon moving to a new town, which state law requires people on the sex offender registry to do within 24 hours of relocating.
“Facing up to my past can be really frightening and embarrassing,” he said when asked why he kept making the mistake.
“Once you notify the authorities they go around and tell the whole neighborhood that you’re there. I’ve received death threats from people who thought I was gonna harm their kids, I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again. I was really messed up back then but I got the help that I needed and I’ve learned my lesson.”
“I feel awful every day for what I did, and I made a vow to myself way back then to never cause that sort of pain again. The worst part is that I felt that same pain when I was a kid, but I went and did it to someone else when I grew up.”
As his middle-aged years become fewer and fewer, and taking care of his health becomes more and more difficult, Phil’s life is hanging in the balance.
“I have COPD, my health is failing, I’m dying,” he stumbled getting the words out while fighting back tears of hopelessness.
“Ever since I’ve been on the sex offender registry it’s been nearly impossible to get stable housing and keep steady employment. Anytime anyone hears about what I did, whether they know the specifics or not, they immediately assume that I’m a terrible person.”
That was when his neighbor Carl spoke up.
“I don’t think he’s a terrible person at all,” remarked Carl defensively, “in fact if it wasn’t for Phil telling me about this place and letting me bunk with him until I found my own tent, I might not have made it through the winter.”
“Phil has been there for countless people who have no one else to turn to. He isn’t just a guy I camp with, and he isn’t just a bum or criminal. He’s my friend and I don’t know what I would have done without him when I found myself living on the streets.”
“I’ve been through a lot of trauma in my life, and I’ve caused a lot of pain,” Phil lamented.
“Now all I can do is just try to be a good friend to the people who will still let me, that’s the only thing that still keeps me going.”
To be continued…
In the next entry, we’ll get to know a married couple who rely on each other for much more than just happiness and love.
To see the first entry for this series, titled “Human stories from a Portland shantytown,” click here.
To see the second entry, “Meet Portland’s homeless city council candidate,” click here.
To see the third entry, “Hanging on to hope,” click here.
And to see the fourth entry, “When cast offs pull together,” click here.