Vigil for the homeless

PORTLAND – Steve Huston believes that in a nation this prosperous, no one should die because they can’t find a place to live. Yet homelessness is prevalent, including in Maine’s largest city.

Huston was among 200 people who walked from Preble Street to Monument Square on Monday night for Portland’s annual memorial for homeless people who have died.

Participants held candles while organizers read the names of those who died in Portland in 2009.

Huston, who lives in a shelter in Old Orchard Beach, said he has lost many of his friends who lived on the street.

"I’ve been homeless on and off since I was 12 years old," said Huston, who is 50. "This (vigil) is about people dying on the streets. It’s a hard life, one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’ve been forced to sleep outside more times than I can remember."

Twenty homeless people died last year in Portland alone, said Amy Regan, community organizer for Preble Street, a nonprofit agency that serves the homeless and poor. She said the average life span of a homeless person is about 50.

Memorial vigils for the homeless are held annually across the United States on the winter solstice — the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

The vigils are held to remember those who died and to raise awareness of homelessness.

On any given night in Portland, more than 300 people are homeless, according to Preble Street.

The weather for Monday’s vigil was cold, but not nearly as cold as it was for last year’s vigil, when the bagpiper’s pipes froze, Regan said. Each year, the procession is led by a bagpiper.

On a cold night like Monday, men begin trickling into the city’s Oxford Street Shelter at dusk. Homeless women can stay at Preble Street. In March, Florence House, a women’s shelter, will open.

"Shelters and soup kitchens are not the answer," said Preble Street’s director, Mark Swann. "Collectively, we need to develop a more thoughtful and humane response to homelessness."

Swann said Portland and the state have had to patch together a network of street programs and shelters to care for the homeless.

But staying in a strange place with strangers is a far cry from the days when families found ways to support loved ones in need, he said.

Thirty years ago, Swann said, there were no shelters in the state.

The city is doing all it can to get the word out about its shelters and programs, said Doug Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

It operates the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter, a 77-bed shelter on Chestnut Street.

"We want people to know that there are services available to them," Gardner said.

"But obviously, 20 (deaths) is too many," he said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: