PORTLAND – As people began to gather in the twilight in the courtyard outside the Preble Street Resource Center, Dee Clarke lit a candle in honor of homeless people who have died in Portland.
“No one should have to die on the street,” said Clarke, who once was homeless and now is an advocate leader for Homeless Voices for Justice. “They should have the right to die with dignity.”
A candlelight procession led by a bagpiper, David Ewing, left the resource center around 4:15 p.m. Tuesday and went up Preble Street to Monument Square, where a crowd estimated at more than 200 gathered.
The Homeless Persons Memorial Vigil is held annually on the winter solstice — the longest night of the year — to remember people who have died and raise awareness about homelessness.
Advocates say the community must do more. On any given night in Portland, more than 300 people are homeless.
Twenty-five homeless people have died in Portland this year, said Donna Yellen, director of the Maine Hunger Initiative and Advocacy.
Every year, more than 5,000 youths, adults and families who live in poverty turn to Preble Street for help with housing, food, clothing, education, health care and employment, Yellen said.
“Homelessness is a daily battle,” said Thomas Ptacek, a member of Homeless Voices for Justice.
Ptacek, a veteran who has been homeless in the past, said 10 of the people who died this year were in the their 50s. Seven were in their 40s.
Scott Wheeler, 54, who is now staying at the Greater Portland YMCA on Forest Avenue, said he has been homeless for three years. He beat a drum during Tuesday’s procession, which he said was his first vigil.
“This (vigil) closes the book on people’s lives here on earth,” Wheeler said.
James King, 19, has been staying at Preble Street’s Lighthouse Shelter for teenagers. He wrote a letter that was read during the vigil.
King wrote that he plans to enroll in Southern Maine Community College’s culinary arts program, but now, “It’s crappy to be homeless. It sucks. I hate it.”
During the ceremony, participants read the names of people who have died and lit candles in their honor.
Al Libby, who said he is homeless, read his friend’s name aloud before sharing Peter Garland’s photo with another homeless man, in a wheelchair.
Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. praised the city’s network of agencies that try to help those who are homeless. “More than two decades ago, we made a promise as a city that no one would have to sleep on the streets,” he said.
The Rev. Jill Saxby, representing the Maine Council of Churches, said her grandmother died last week in her own home, with dignity, unlike people who die without a home.
Each homeless person who dies represents a failure by our society, Saxby said. “In our society, poverty should never be a cause of death.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org