Out of the van but still in search of a home

Sep. 3—KENNEBUNK — Jeanie Cannell looks at home in this sunny kitchen, where bananas and bread sit on the counter and the fridge is stocked with her favorite yogurt.

Her husband, Roger, has just returned from a doctor's appointment and is hungry for lunch. Jeanie warms up a frozen meal, sprinkles on a bit of pepper and sets it on the table for him. She puts his pills on a paper towel and reminds him to take them, even if he'd rather not. She makes peanut butter toast for herself, carefully brushing crumbs off the counter.

All of this — preparing food, dispensing medicine, cleaning up after — is easier now. But uncertainty lingers.

For months, Jeanie and Roger lived in a van in the parking lot of a Maine Turnpike service plaza while they searched in vain for any kind of housing. Motels were full or too expensive. Every apartment they applied for went to someone else. They ate meals out because they had nowhere to cook. They cleaned themselves in public restrooms.

Now, they're staying temporarily in a 38-foot RV loaned to them by a local couple who read about Jeanie's situation in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in July. Jeanie, 63, and Roger, 72, can stay in the RV at a campground in Kennebunk until mid-October. They don't know what will come next.

"I still feel homeless," Jeanie says.

But she's also thankful for the outpouring of support from strangers across Maine and beyond who jumped in to help when they heard she and Roger were living in the van with his daughter while the women worked full time and he got chemotherapy for bladder cancer and physical therapy for injuries from a fall.

After Roger's accident, they had moved from a Biddeford apartment to a winter rental in Old Orchard Beach. When the winter rental ended and they had nowhere to go, Jeanie bought a 1997 Dodge Ram van for $2,500 to keep a roof over their heads.

They loaded the van with some clothes, toiletries and coolers for drinks and food. All of their other belongings when into storage and Tucker, Jeanie's 7-pound Yorkie, was sent to stay with her daughter. They parked the van at the turnpike plaza, hoping it was safe and that no one would bother them.

Jeanie never expected to be homeless, let alone share with the world what it feels like to find yourself without options and struggling to hold onto hope. After months and months of fruitlessly searching for apartments she and Roger could afford, she thought maybe talking about it would help her find other options.

She also hoped it would help people understand that no one wants to be in that situation.

The Cannells' story ran in the newspaper July 24. By that afternoon, a man who found them at the turnpike plaza had rented a hotel room for them for two nights. For the first time in months, they slept inside. The beds were far more comfortable than the thin mattress on a wood platform in the van. Jeanie got to take a hot bath.

Merrilee Paul, owner of 50 Local in Kennebunk, invited them to the restaurant for dinner and gave them gift cards so they could come back when they needed another meal. That first night, Jeanie ordered steak because Paul told her she couldn't miss out on one of the best things on the menu.

Carla Valentine, a Gorham woman they met through someone else who slept at the turnpike plaza, started a GoFundMe for Jeanie and Roger. It surpassed its goal of $24,000 in less than a week.

"It really was an outpouring," Valentine said. "I think it hit a lot of chords with people who have been touched by cancer, people who have faced homelessness, survived homelessness or are on the brink of homelessness, people like me who had problems finding a place and are priced out of the market."


It was hot and muggy the night Dan and Jan Hussey heard about Jeanie and Roger. They couldn't imagine sleeping in a van, especially on a night like that. Jan Hussey resisted the urge to rush to the turnpike service plaza and bring the Cannells home with her that night.

But the Husseys wanted to help.

They had just purchased a new 38-foot RV and parked it in their driveway, ready for future camping trips and to use as a temporary kitchen while they remodeled the kitchen of their Kennebunk home. They decided immediately to offer it to Jeanie and Roger for a short time so they could get out of the van and away from the highway.

They tracked them down and liked them immediately. Jeanie and Roger took them up on the offer.

"They had a bad stroke of luck that took them down," Dan Hussey said.

"It could be any of us tomorrow," his wife said. "It breaks your heart. These are good, salt-of-the-earth Maine people."

Jan Hussey made arrangements to rent a site at a campground in town and Dan Hussey towed the RV over with his truck. Jeanie, Roger and Margaret moved in that day. The Husseys paid the campground costs upfront and Jeanie promised to pay them back.

During their first RV weekend, Jeanie and Roger enjoyed sitting at their site and listening to a concert on the campground stage. On hot days, they can hear the splashing and chatter of kids in the swimming pool. People walk by with their dogs and wave.

On a muggy afternoon in early August, Jeanie sat at the picnic table outside the RV, crunching potato chips as she scrolled through phone messages. She returned a call from a woman at the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, who asked her a series of questions about programs she and Roger might qualify for based on age and income.

Do they already receive SNAP? Yes. Have they applied for a Section 8 voucher? Yes, they're on a long waitlist. Have they applied for apartments through the nonprofit affordable housing provider Avesta Housing? Jeanie can't remember.

"I can't even imagine how you're juggling all those pieces," the woman told Jeanie.

It's sometimes hard, in fact, for Jeanie to keep track of everything. She takes notes on all the housing leads she gets in a spiral notebook she used to use just for Roger's medical appointments. She doesn't read well, she says, and has never had to apply for so many things.

Jeanie is on a medical leave from her job at Cabela's until early October so she can focus on caring for Roger and her own health. Roger decided not to do his last two chemo treatments because they're so hard on his body. He's been struggling with a bladder infection.

Her heart has been beating fast. Her doctor, trying to figure out what's going on, now has her on a heart monitor.

"They think I might have a blockage in my heart. They don't want to say for sure until (the doctors) do some other tests," she says.

The medical leave also eases one of the biggest and most unexpected stressors from sharing her story: the reaction of coworkers. Some were supportive, she says, but others suggested she was faking her situation to get money. She felt like people were whispering about her when she walked by.

She and Roger can't fathom why people would think they are making up their situation, especially when they never expected the kind of help they received. It still feels uncomfortable to accept so much. They're used to working and figuring out on their own how to make ends meet.

Jeanie tries to focus on the positive, on the good that has come her way.

"I've never seen so much kindness," she says.


Since it launched, the GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $45,000.

That is a life-changing amount for Jeanie and Roger, and they're trying to figure out how to use the help in the best way.

"Me and Roger, we don't want to take that money and just pay it on rent. We'd like to buy something," Jeanie says. "It makes more sense so we're not in the same boat that we're in right now. I'm not going back in a winter rental. I'm not moving again. I'm tired."

Roger's daughter, Margaret Belanger, who has been with the Cannells since her father's accident, stayed with them in the van and RV but is now planning to move back to West Virginia.

Jeanie and Roger got the fundraiser money a couple of weeks ago. After about $1,200 in fees, more than $44,000 was transferred to Jeanie's bank account. Any future donations also will go directly into her account. They still don't know if the big cash infusion will affect their eligibility for programs like SNAP, which they use for groceries.

Jeanie used some of it to pay back the Husseys for the $3,200 in campground fees. She's paid off a few bills, some medical, so she has a better chance to get approved for a home loan with a decent interest rate. They fixed an exhaust leak in the van.

Jeanie transferred $35,000 to a separate account, which she won't touch for a couple of months. For many home loans, borrowers must have money for the down payment in their possession for 30 days or more.

In August, Jeanie went to York County Community Action Corp. to learn more about the Sanford-based agency's help in home-buying. The nonprofit agency connected her to two local real estate agents and a loan officer who are working with the couple to try to get them pre-approved for a mortgage and to find them an affordable place to buy.

When Dan Gipson, a loan officer with CMG Financial in Alfred, heard their story, he was immediately sympathetic. He also knew it would take a bit of extra effort to find the right loan for Jeanie and to help her navigate the process while juggling so much.

"I had a daughter who had a long battle with cancer before she died," he said. "I know what it's like to try to take care of someone while also trying to take care of day-to-day life."

Gipson and agents Amy Sainteloi and Caleb Scheyder of Better Homes and Gardens The Masiello Group are trying to find Jeanie and Roger a home in decent condition on terms they can afford.

Jeanie has taken Gipson's advice to pay off debt to bring her credit score up. Gipson has already found one loan Jeanie may be able to use, but he's hoping to help her raise more money for a down payment. That would open up more options for homes that don't need a lot of work before the Cannells could move in, he said.

Last week, Gipson and Sainteloi helped set up a HomeFundIt campaign through CMG Financial to collect donations to go directly to Jeanie for a down payment, closing costs and other home-buying expenses. The program allows anyone to contribute, something that is normally restricted to close family and friends of borrowers. Each time the campaign link is shared on social media, Jeanie's account will receive $10.

As part of the campaign, she may also be eligible for a grant of up to $2,000 for closing costs from CMG Financial.

The housing shortage is especially hard for first-time homebuyers, Sainteloi said. But she and Gipson are confident they'll be able to find something for Jeanie and Roger.

"They're wonderful people," Sainteloi said. "As soon as I met them, my goal was to make this work for them."

Jeanie doesn't have a lot of requirements for a house, other than a first-floor bedroom because Roger can't do stairs. She'd prefer to be in a rural area in York County and dreams of having three bedrooms and maybe a one-car garage. Roger hopes to find a place in Waterboro — he lived there for 13 years and loved it.

"It's close by to shopping centers and places like that," Roger said.

"I just want to have a place, you know?" Jeanie said.

For the first time in a long time, she's hopeful that will happen.