Homeless advocates unveil giant Advent calendar of ‘truths’

PORTLAND, Maine – Members of a Portland homeless advocacy group turned to a familiar holiday prop Monday in an effort to dispel what they said are common misconceptions about people living in shelters or on the streets.

Representatives of Homeless Voices for Justice unveiled an eight-foot-tall house-shaped Advent calendar, in which 10 doors and windows were opened to unveil the 10 "Truths of Homelessness."

The public outreach event took place in the midst of an ongoing debate in Portland about a slate of recommendations made to the city council by a specially appointed task force on homelessness. The task force has urged city leaders to invest in a centralized intake location that can match homeless individuals with appropriate services and programs, as well as 105 more specialized housing units for the chronically homeless, among other recommendations.

The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce has responded to the task force plan with its own document posing the question of whether the city’s extensive network of service providers and shelter accommodations make Portland "too attractive" to homeless people, citing increases in the homeless population in recent years and the fact that two-thirds of the city’s shelter seekers come from outside Portland.

Approximately 440 people in Portland seek shelter every night, an increase of about 25 percent compared to even last year at this time, which was a previous high mark.

"A lot of [the Chambers concerns were based on] misconceptions," said Jim Devine, who previously lived homeless in Portland and is now a member of Homeless Voices for Justice. "We want them to realize that homeless people are people first of all."

Group spokesman Thomas Ptacek led the Advent calendar unveiling Monday in the swirling snowfall in Monument Square, saying each year the organization holds some kind of holiday event.

"This year, what we were focused on was getting out the truths about homelessness," he said. "There are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around out there."

The 10 "truths" revealed by the group Monday were:

1. Homeless people are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, family and friends – members of our community.

2. Homelessness is difficult and depressing. People use a homeless shelter because they have no choice – or the [alternative] is worse than sleeping on a 4-inch mat on the floor inches apart from [another] person.

3. One in three Maine people don’t have enough income to meet even the basic needs of life.

4. "Being homeless is being totally alone – bankrupt without hope." [A quotation by Devine]

5. Many homeless people work or are trying to get work.

6. Some landlords and employers shut the door when they find out you are homeless, because of stereotypes and misperceptions.

7. More than 200,000 Mainers are food insecure. That is more than the total population of Maine’s five largest cities combined. Preble Street soup kitchen alone serves more than 1,200 meals every day.

8. "There is no dignity in dying in a shelter or on the streets. We all deserve the dignity of dying at home in peace." [A quotation by longtime homeless advocate Steve Huston, who died in October]

9. Homeless services keep people alive.

10. Homelessness can happen to anyone. You can lose your job, your health, your marriage, your insurance, your house; the reasons are many, but any one of them can land you on the streets.