As the sun sets, Lee Doucette flips over a plastic bucket and slides it to the edge of a wall that overlooks the Merrimack River. Shadows of tall weeds, and a tent — where she’s lived since March — fall on the woman, who sits on the pail and methodically tears slices of bread into smaller and smaller pieces before tossing them to the waiting geese below.
“These are some of my friends,” she says, nodding to the birds below. “I got no family. All the people I know are homeless.”
Alcohol has played a large role in Doucette’s road to a sliver of land above the river. She is 49, grew up in North Andover, had six children — now ranging from 10 to 26 — and has spent most of her years working day jobs such as landscaping and for moving companies.
She first became homeless around a decade ago and, records say, has had some relatively minor run-ins with the law. Early last winter, she says, she lost her ride to her landscaping job, and then her apartment, and showed up under the Central Bridge in downtown Lawrence. But she prefers to live alone, and within weeks she drifted to a spot above the Merrimack, where she set up a tent, complete with a mattress, battery-powered lights, and Nora Roberts paperback novels.
Doucette says she’s no angel but she never figured she’d be looking at spending the winter outside. “I’ve made a lot of bad choices,” says Doucette, who has a quick smile and a raspy voice. Like most of Lawrence’s homeless, she eats breakfast and dinner at food kitchens in the city. She has declined to apply for state or federal aid because she wants to work, and she sees steady employment as a way back to a life that would include a room with a bed.
Most days she walks over to Labor Ready, where she’s found temporary day jobs as a landscaper and a mover. But those jobs are becoming harder to land, and when there’s no work she walks over to Pemberton Park and meets up with her other homeless friends.
“She’s a smart lady, and a hard worker,” says a homeless middle-aged man, whom everyone calls Tall Mike. He points toward some brush near the river and says he’s lived in a cubbyhole by the Central Bridge for three years. The two have a 10-year-old son they gave up for adoption years ago. “We wanted him to have a chance,” says Doucette.
These days, the river is a lifeline for her. When there’s no money for her to take her clothes to the laundromat, she washes them in the river. She also bathes in the Merrimack. At night, after the ducks move on and the sun goes down — leaving reflections of the old factories that line the shore — the river carries away the memories, and lulls her to sleep.