Annual vigil marks heartbreaking year for Portland's homeless

PORTLAND – Friends and supporters of the city’s homeless population gathered on the longest night of the year last Friday to read, one by one, the first names and last initials of the 30 Portland-area homeless people who died this year.

This was one of the hardest years on record for these people, according to Donna Yellen, director of Maine Hunger Initiative and Advocacy.

"This past year, 30 people have died, the most since they’ve been doing this memorial," Yellen said.

The 13th annual Homeless Person’s Memorial Vigil was held at Monument Square on Dec. 21, the winter solstice. It was organized by the Preble Street Resource Center, the city Health and Human Services Department, and Mercy Hospital.

The group met at the Preble Street courtyard and ignored wind and rain to march up to Congress Street, where Mayor Michael Brennan spoke about the need to look at homelessness in a new light.

"I’m going to make a pledge," Brennan said. "I’m not going to just say ‘homeless’ next year, I’m going to talk about the people involved."

Yellen said homeless people have the same diseases and illnesses as the mainstream population, but homelessness causes them to suffer three to six times more.

"They have a harder time to stay warm, and rest properly. To get medication is not as easy for the homeless," she said. "When we remember our friends who have died, we are remembering people who have had the same things that everyone else gets, but they are more likely to get it, and are more likely to die."

Yellen said the average lifespan for a homeless person is 60 years, whereas an average person with shelter lives to age 78. This past year in Portland, the average age of the homeless people who died was 50 years, ranging from a 22-year-old woman to a 64-year-old man, she said.

Jim Devine, of Homeless Voices for Justice, and Tom Ptacek took time out before the vigil to discuss homelessness, something they had both experienced. Devine, who spoke at the vigil, has an apartment now, but said he lived on the streets for several years.

"It is a problem caused by a lot of reasons," Devine said. "There’s trouble with the economy, and people aren’t able to make enough money. I consider myself fortunate to have gotten to age 59 with my experiences. Homeless services are about keeping people alive. We see the truth of that all the more on this vigil day."

Last month, 450 homeless people in Portland utilized homeless shelters, 100 more than last November, according to Yellen.

"Not everybody can even get a mat at the shelter. There’s overflow. People have to sit up in the city’s Department of Social Services building," Devine said. "It’s not a place to sleep. It’s just a waiting room for people to go until there’s room for them. You’re not allowed to lay down and sleep there, according to fire code. And if you’re sleeping in a crowded shelter, you’re likely to catch what the person has next to you."

Options for homeless in the city include the Oxford Shelter, Florence House Shelter for Women, and the Milestone Shelter. The city also runs a family shelter, a domestic violence shelter, and a homeless teens shelter.

Ptacek, who has been in his own apartment for four years,spoke at the vigil two years ago, and said Portland has changed quite a lot since that time.

"I’m a veteran, so the Veterans Assisted Housing helped me to get into my place," Ptacek said. "I stayed at the Oxford Street for a solid year. There wasn’t the struggle to get into the shelter then. I knew I would be able to stay there every night. Today that’s not guaranteed. If you get to the shelter late at night, you may not even get into overflow."

One of the main dangers of homelessness, the speakers agreed, is in thinking sleeping outside is a better alternative.

Devine made special mention of a major voice for the homeless.

"Tonight I would like to especially remember a dear friend I lost this year," he said. "Steve Huston was not homeless when he died, but had experienced it often in his life. He did much work to help those in need and was active in putting this vigil together in the past. I found some words that he said at another vigil. His message remains true today. He said:

"‘The homeless community needs hope, hope that services won’t be cut, hope that they will become housed and hope that their name is never spoken on a cold winter solstice night in Portland, Maine. Help give the homeless hope.’

"Now with great sadness, I’d like to add his name to the list of those we will never forget," Devine continued, as he lit a candle in Huston’s memory.

The group moved through the 30 names, with different people coming up to light a candle for each one. An acoustical group played music, and supportive voices braved the elements to recall their lost friends.