The minivan is 16 years old, with over 209,000 miles on it. Last fall, the rear brakes needed repair, as did the power steering.

“It’s been one thing after another,” said Rebecca Johnson of South Portland. “It may need a new ignition switch, and one of the doors doesn’t work, but it’s our only vehicle.”

On Saturday, Johnson put the $5,600 in stimulus money her family of four received from the American Rescue Plan toward a second, more reliable means of transportation. She bought a 2010 Honda Pilot.

“It’s the newest car we’ve ever had,” she said. “The stimulus helped a lot. It made for more than half of what we needed.”

The $1.9 trillion bill, signed into law by President Biden on March 11 after passing through Congress without a single Republican vote, extends unemployment insurance benefits and eligibility, increases the child tax credit and sends billions of dollars to schools, states and local governments.

For most Mainers, however, the most noticeable portion of the stimulus package is per-person payments of $1,400 that began showing up in bank accounts over the past week.

Johnson and her husband, Mark McDonnell, live in a three-bedroom apartment with their 6-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter. McDonnell works an overnight shift at the postal distribution center in Scarborough. With only one vehicle, Rebecca and the kids would drive him to work at night, and he would catch a ride back home in the morning.

Johnson and McDonnell, both 35, moved to Maine a few years ago from Massachusetts. It has not been easy meeting other parents with young children in the midst of a pandemic because local playgrounds and child care facilities have been closed.

“We would like to be more involved with the community,” Johnson said. “My son is autistic, so we’re hoping to meet other families that have kids on the spectrum as well.”

Having one vehicle that works half the time has not been a comfortable position, Johnson said. Nor has having to decide between paying for car repairs or keeping current with rent. In December, she was able to obtain one-time rental assistance and, for Christmas, a Toys for Tots program helped put gifts under the tree.

“We’re not the type to ask for help, but we had to put our pride aside,” she said. “I’m really grateful for all the help and support we got this past Christmas. I’m hoping to pay it forward to help struggling families that have been in our position.”

The child tax credit will mean another $6,600 boost for the family, with half of that coming in monthly installments of $550 between July and December, and the rest on next year’s tax return. Johnson said her first priority is to establish an emergency fund. Then, if things work out, she plans to save for a trip.

“I haven’t had a vacation in 10 years,” she said. “So it would be nice, maybe in another year, to take a first family vacation.”

Mark McDonnell and his son, Keston, 6, with the family’s 2005 minivan at Bug Light Park in South Portland on Wednesday. McDonnell and Rebecca Johnson have bought a new, more reliable car with the help of the stimulus money they received. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

HOUSING, DEBTS, PET CARE

Plans for the stimulus money varied widely among a sampling of Mainers who spoke with the Portland Press Herald over the past week. The federal government already sent out two earlier rounds of stimulus checks – generally $1,200 per person (and $500 per eligible child) in April and $600 per person in December.

Hutch Brown, 52, of Portland said his $1,400 will help pay for medical care for his 5-year-old dog. A rescue mix named Rosie, she needed one of her knee ligaments repaired last month, and the bill was $4,600.

The surgery “is a very entitled and elite thing to spend money on,” Brown said, “but I don’t have any kids, so she’s kind of like my kid.”

Nicole O’Donnel-Long, who lives with her husband and two children in Biddeford, said her family plans to use the stimulus payments to pay down debt and save the rest so they can buy a house someday. O’Donnel-Long said she was out of work as a day care provider for about six months after the coronavirus pandemic hit last March, but has since been working full time.

She said the “benefit” of last year’s stimulus checks felt short-lived, because the tax credits her family received were less on their 2020 return than in previous years. In the end, it felt like the stimulus was a wash, O’Donnel-Long said.

“We’re very skeptical,” she said. “That is why we are not spending it. We are saving it, just in case our taxes are more this year. Government doesn’t hand you out free anything – nothing in the world is free.”

Angel Small-Clark, 38, shares a similar mindset. Small-Clark, interviewed on Portland Street in Portland, doesn’t have a permanent residence and said he lives “wherever society tells me I’m allowed to these days,” which in recent months often means inexpensive hotel rooms accessed with housing vouchers.

“None of us actually get to use those (stimulus) checks,” he said about the state’s unhoused population. “They take it from us to pay for those rooms instead of using the stimulus money that’s supposed to be there for everyone. So it’s helpful, but it’s not helpful, because we’re not really seeing that stimulus. It’s going straight back to the state General Assistance and the government anyway.”

Small-Clark said that with the arrival of spring, “a lot of people are going to start shuffling outside, to save money.”

A home address isn’t necessary to receive the stimulus money. Andrew Bove, director of street outreach at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, said a social worker often helps those without a permanent residence get the funding for which they are eligible.

“It can be a little bit confusing for a layperson, let alone someone with substance abuse or mental health issues,” Bove said.

When a stimulus check is cut, it needs to have an address unless the money can be deposited electronically in a bank account. Preble Street provides a post office box free of charge so people can collect their mail.

Bove said between 60 and 70 people use the service, with mail distribution on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.

Rebecca Johnson holds her 7-month-old daughter, Micayah, at Bug Light Park in South Portland on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

FOOD AND ESSENTIALS

Joe Pearson, 42, of Portland said he would like to save the stimulus money for an apartment. He said he’s been bouncing around for too long, but the $1,400 won’t be enough to cover first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit.

“You can’t snap your fingers and get one,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that fast.”

His plans for the money?

“Essentials,” he said. “Toilet paper, trash bags, something to drink. I try to use my resources as best I can.”

Jacques Wilondja, a 64-year-old asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, said the $1,400 stimulus check helped him pay for lodging and food.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost my job and I didn’t have anything in my bank account to pay my rent and pay for food,” he said in an interview. “This check is very important and has helped me a lot.”

Before the pandemic, Wilondja was a housekeeper at a hotel in Portland, where he lives. He lost his job as reservations cratered, but has begun to receive hours again as travelers start to trickle back in.

Wilondja came to the United States from the DRC in 2017. A biological researcher from the east of the country, he left as political conflicts escalated at home and endangered people with educated backgrounds such as his. The United Nations estimates that unrest stemming from internal political power struggles and, in part, from ethnic violence in Rwanda, has driven nearly 1 million people to leave the DRC.

Immigrants with Social Security numbers are eligible for stimulus checks, and Wilondja received both the latest payment and the $600 check from late 2020. He missed out on the first round of stimulus because of a paperwork error.

As Wilondja pursues his asylum claim, his wife and children are waiting in Burundi, a country bordering the DRC where they’re safer than at home.

“They would very much like to join me,” he said. “I’d very much like to have them here.”

Tim Adams of Portland poses on Saturday in Portland with his 1988 Honda NX250, which he used his stimulus money to buy.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

LAPTOPS, MOTORCYCLES, TATTOOS

Andrew Ferris and Tim Adams, both 23, share a Portland apartment with two other friends from their hometown of Cumberland.

Ferris said their landlord temporarily reduced their rent by $500 last March when the pandemic first hit because one roommate lost his job, but they gradually made that up in subsequent payments. As a remote worker, Ferris said he uses a computer for his job but doesn’t have a personal laptop. He’s considering using the stimulus money to buy one.

Adams said his check will go toward a 1988 Honda NX250 motorcycle he recently purchased and two tattoos he is scheduled to get on the tops of his feet, a rooster and a pig. He said it’s a maritime tradition meant to prevent the wearer from drowning.

“It feels good to go to a local artist in Portland and support them,” Adams said. “I was fortunate that I didn’t need this money to make ends meet, like a lot of people out there.”

Samantha Small, 35, of Westbrook said she would be using the stimulus money to catch up on bills, buy new clothes for her growing children (she has an 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son) and get long-overdue dental care for herself.

“I’m taking this and going to get my teeth fixed,” she said.

She also has an 18-year-old son, but he’s no longer dependent on her and is considering using his stimulus check toward a down payment on a car. When the pandemic hit, child care options dried up, so Small quit her telemarketing job in order to care for her younger children, who have in-person schooling for part of the week.

“It’s been a tough road,” she said.

Kristie McDonald, 29, of Biddeford underwent major surgery to treat Crohn’s disease before the pandemic hit and remains at high risk of severe illness, so she hasn’t been working beyond what she can do from her one-bedroom apartment. The last of her $6,000 in savings ran out in late December.

McDonald was able to work in a bakery in the fall, but her doctor thought the risk of contracting COVID-19 was too high. Three times she got tested because of possible exposures.

Now, she only goes out once a week to shop for groceries.

McDonald said she is behind on many of her bills, but most providers have been understanding. The stimulus money will put a dent in that debt, but she knows that others may benefit even more.

“For some people, it will save them from eviction, make sure their kids don’t go hungry,” she said. “It’s the hope that people like me, and people in worse situations than me, needed. That it will be OK.”

Staff Writers Rob Wolfe and Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

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