Action to aid homeless attracts help

PORTLAND – When someone references Live Aid, it’s usually
necessary to tell them I was 5 years old when the multi-city benefit concert took place.

Still, John Ripley is as sincere as a grade school love note when he talks about Acts for Change, which will be held Sunday. It’s a local festival to benefit the Preble Street Resource Center, featuring more than 20 acts, including musicians such as Grupo Esperanza and comedians like George Hamm, for 12 straight hours.

The idea, he says, is to start an annual tradition to help raise money, as well as awareness of the homeless problem in Maine.

"We hope this will be Portland’s version of Live Aid," he said.

Ripley’s path to becoming a festival organizer was unexpected, but fortunately he had help.

"This is not a John Ripley story," he said. "There’s so many people that have come on board to help."

Kind as that may be, it did start with Ripley, who works at NL Partners, a marketing and advertising company in Portland.

It was last winter when he heard a news story detailing recent deaths of homeless people in the Portland area. What struck him most, he said, is that they died for no other reason than their plight.

Though he has lived many previous lives (journalist, naval officer, aide to Gov. Angus King and then-Congressman John Baldacci), Ripley was not an organizer on this scale.

Still, the desire to find some way to help was strong, he said.

Fortunately, like many people in the Portland area, he’s friends with a musician.

"It was not hard to assemble the lineup," said Jay Basiner, lead singer of the band This Way. "Everyone was really willing to jump on board."

That lineup now includes Sli Chi, Adam Kurtz, Jacob Augustine, the Sea Captains, Tony McNaboe of Rustic Overtones and Spencer Albee of Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia, among others.

When everyone’s working together – in this case not pulling a cut of the receipts and focused on one goal – these things have a way of setting up quickly, he said.

It’s not exactly uncommon for musicians to play local benefit shows. In fact you can count on it any time a band member, friend, family member or scene supporter falls on hard times.

Just like anyone else looking at a bad situation, musicians ask themselves what ability they have to help, Basiner said.

Now with the economy being in rough shape, people see homelessness as a more pressing concern, he said.

But Basiner said he also thinks another motivator was the election of President Obama and his appeal to Americans to find ways to give back to their community.

"If someone loses their job it doesn’t only affect (them), it affects all of us," he said.

Elena Schmidt, director of development for Preble Street, said the shelter sees between 400 and 500 people each day.

While many of those are people who will be homeless for a short period, there are always others to take their place, she said.

The basic needs of Preble Street don’t change much – everyday items, food, manpower and money to fund programs.

But it all makes a difference, she said. "Our bread and butter is the people in the community who want to share this work," she said.

Even something simple like a pair of socks is helpful, she said. "Every pair of feet that comes through here spends most of its life walking," she said.

Schmidt said Preble Street is grateful for benefits to raise funds and build support. But she said what is more inspiring is Ripley’s move from thought to action.

"To wake up and say, ‘I have to do something,’" she said. "It represents well the people in this community who become aware of what’s going on."

Ripley and the others know that homelessness can be an elusive problem, and not one that can be ended overnight (or over the course of a 12-hour festival).

But to solve any problem, you have to take a first step, Ripley said. "Hopefully (the festival) will show it doesn’t take a Nobel Prize-winning effort to make a difference," he said. "It’s a matter of a bunch of people offering to help."

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at: