Sam keeps her campsite neat and makes sure to take out the trash when she heads out each day. Sam says life in the woods is getting harder as she gets older. "I've been trying to stay busy and trying not to go on one of my benders." Deb Cram/

Sam serves as mom of 'tent city'

By Kyle Stucker

SOMERSWORTH — Sam considers herself to be the “mother hen.”

You may have seen the 41-year-old homeless woman flying a sign in Dover and Somersworth, cracking jokes as she seeks money from passers-by. Her thin red fleece jacket and running shoes always look clean, but her neat appearance belies a key reason she’s been panhandling on and off since 2012.

The money’s not only for her. While Sam does use a portion for herself, she says the majority of the funds go toward helping the other residents of her Somersworth tent city. She says those individuals don’t panhandle and often find themselves without food, bus fare for hospital visits, and beer so they can stave off withdrawal.

“You don’t leave a soldier behind,” says Sam, who asked Seacoast Media Group to use only her first name and not to photograph her full face. “I never come back without something for everybody who’s around. When I have food, 99 percent of the time I feed everybody else and go without. It’s just the humanity in me.”

Sam has tented in a wooded area of Somersworth for about five years, occasionally couch surfing or hitting the road for a few weeks to survive the colder months. Up until February, she also used to intentionally get police to place her into protective custody to avoid freezing to death in the winter.

Sam, 41, doesn't want to spend the winter in the woods and dreams of a studio apartment to call her own. Deb Cram/

Sam is a survivor of physical, mental and sexual abuse. She says a trauma-filled childhood and a related stress disorder, for which she receives a $735 disability check each month, play a role in the reasons why she tents. Also, she says “shelters have too many rules” and wouldn’t allow her to continue drinking. She is trying to dramatically cut her daily alcohol consumption because she believes she’s “getting too old” to keep living by a clock that’s dictated by beer.

That trauma, which involves a variety of forms of abuse by close family members, helps explain why taking care of others is something she values. She carries with her immense guilt for not being around to stop her grandfather, who was her best friend and the man who raised her, from spiraling into heavy alcohol and drug use. She says it’s a mistake she doesn’t want to make again.

“If I’m not taking care of somebody else, I feel like I’m useless,” says the mother of four children, two of whom she gave up because she couldn’t support them. “It’s just who I am. I don’t know why, it’s the way I am. Sam I am, I do not like green eggs and ham.”

A former tenter named Henry, who asked us not to use his real name, has known Sam for years and used to live in the same tent city before he secured a mobile home in Dover. He says he’s witnessed Sam give a lot to other tenters over the years, including him.

“She has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen,” says Henry.

Sam's campsite has home-like decorations and a clothesline hangs between trees. Deb Cram/

However, Sam’s kindness, she believes, also contributes to her remaining homeless. On more than one occasion, she’s been able to secure housing, only to lose it because she’s allowed other individuals to illegally move in with her.

“I’ve got to help myself,” says Sam, who has a goofy sense of humor and a homey tent site that looks cleaner than many recreational campsites. “I can’t help anyone else if I don’t help myself."

Sam says she hopes the day she finds an apartment is nearing, as she’s not sure how many more winters she can make it through. In recent years, she’s been a frequent patient at local hospitals and medical offices due to a long list of ailments and conditions. A couple of them — high blood pressure and a severe bee allergy — led to medical treatment during some of the weeks of our interviews.

“I sure as hell ain’t tough,” says Sam, who has received assistance from local soup kitchens, the CERV thrift store in Somersworth and through Community Action Partnership’s street outreach team. “I’m getting a little too old, guys. It’s starting to where it’s a toll on me, especially with winter coming.”

According to Frisbie Memorial Hospital President John Marzinzik, access to medical care and mental health services is a major problem for the homeless community. Homeless individuals also represent a significant portion of health care providers’ patients; in 2016, nearly a quarter of Frisbie’s 30,000 total patient visits involved homelessness of some kind, according to Marzinzik.

Sam says she also has nodes on her lungs due to her heavy smoking. Her yellowed nails offer proof of her claim she can smoke up to four packs a day, even though smoking killed her grandmother.

“I try not to think about that s**t,” says Sam, who grew up with dreams of becoming a nurse. “I’ll quit drinking before I quit smoking.”

She’s one of only two women in her tent city, and while she’s encountered violence there before, she says it was at the hands of individuals who no longer live in their tight-knit group. There is a level of comfort in her living situation, and while it’s not perfect, she says she’s thankful the majority of people in the homeless community genuinely look out for each other.

“We’re family,” she says.