Portland shelter remembers those easily forgotten

PORTLAND – Every year, there are news reports about the deaths of homeless people, whether from natural causes or the result of accidents or crimes.

Such was the case on May 17, when it was reported that 51-year-old David Westfall, of Portland, was struck and killed by a car shortly before 10 p.m. as he was crossing Congress Street.

Police Sgt. Troy Bowden said the results of toxicology tests on the driver are not likely for several weeks, but he doesn’t expect any charges.

"It appears (Westfall) walked right out in front of her," Bowden said, reading from the accident report.

For most people, that’s where the story ends.

But for people at the Preble Street Resource Center, it’s just the beginning of a period of not only grieving, but of self reflection.

"It does not go unmarked," said Elena Schmidt, the center’s director of development.

Preble Street holds vigils on the summer and winter solstices to remember all of the homeless people who have died. The summer vigil is scheduled for June 21, at noon, in Post Office Park.

But the center also tries to hold personal memorials whenever there is a death.

Schmidt said staff often work with other agencies to track down relatives of the deceased. If family are found, they usually take possession of body and make funeral arrangements.

But often, staff are unable to find relatives of Portland’s homeless. So case workers and other members of the homeless community take it upon themselves to conduct a memorial service.

Pastor Mair Honan heads up the Grace Street Ministry, which provides spiritual assistance to the homeless. Hanon is often called into the resource center to perform the service.

"Our part is to keep some sense of sacred and setting aside time to allow people to grieve," Honan said.

After a short prayer, the floor is turned over to attendees to speak about the deceased.

Honan said people express a wide range of emotions at the memorials. Some offer stories about the deceased. But for others, the death triggers self reflection and an awareness that they could be next.

"They experience a lot more loss than any of us," Honan said. "A tremendous amount of loss."

Honan said sometimes homeless deaths happen so frequently the center must hold a memorial for two or three people at once.

"Better that than forget someone," she said.

‘Hollywood’ ending

Preble Street caseworker Amy Regan said staff members knew Westfall since last August. He was known as a clown at the center, always ready with a smile or a joke.

"He had a way of making everyone around him have a much better day," Regan said. "People were really, really upset (when he died)."

Regan said Westfall, who was known as "Hollywood," was trying to keep himself sober.

Although he often attended addiction counseling sessions, Regan said any strides he made were fragile, since he frequently ended up back on the street, surrounded by others who were not sober.

"There’s very little supportive housing for people who are nearly sober, so they’re right back on the street with folks who are actively using," she said.

Regan said Preble Street is planning a memorial service for Westfall in the next few weeks.

She said the center has not been able to find any of his relatives, but Bowden, of the Police Department, said he believed that a family member had been found by police.

Burying the dead

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said homeless corpses are typically turned over to a local funeral home, which takes care of embalming.

After a "good faith" effort is made by the home to locate relatives, the funeral home will bury the body at one of the city’s two cemeteries: Evergreen Cemetery on Stevens Avenue or Forest City Cemetery on Lincoln Street.

Clegg said the city accesses general assistance funding to pay for the graves and funeral services for the homeless and those with low income. She said it costs the city about $2,900 for a burial and $1,000 for cremation.

Clegg said the city buries the bodies unless a family that can’t afford burial requests cremation.

She said the city, with about 70 percent financial assistance from the state, spent about $95,000 last year for burials.

Emotional attachment

Regan said the memorials can be emotional, not only for the homeless community, but for the staff at the resource center and members of the community at large.

She noted how the community responded when a homeless man named Charles died several years ago. Charles would frequently sit on a bench at the Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue and always talked about going to Russia.

When he died, Regan said, store employees attended his memorial service.

"Down at Hannaford for a long time they had a plaque on that bench that said ‘Charles: gone to Russia,’" she said.

But the deaths also affect those who work with the homeless population on a regular basis.

Regan said a memorial service within the last year for a man known as "The Governor" moved her to tears.

"I was a little embarrassed by it," she said. "A couple clients came up to me after. They never thought of how emotionally connected we all become."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings..