A vigil to remember friends from the Greater Portland homeless community who have died this year took place last night. For almost 30 years, Portlanders have gathered to mourn the many lives that were cut short, and to commit to changing the broken systems that allow so many of our neighbors to fall through the cracks.
Of the 45 people we have lost so far this year, the average age was 47 years old. Causes of death include cancer, overdose, meningitis, exposure, and chronic medical conditions. On average, the life expectancy of people who are homeless is about 28 years shorter than that of people who are housed.
“One of the hardest parts of my job is to bear witness to all the deaths. When I started this work years ago, I knew the statistics of those experiencing homelessness at risk of dying three times more frequently than those not homeless. And those on the street at ten times the risk of death. And that knowledge made me angry because it is clearly a societal choice to allow these circumstances to continue” shared Kevin Sullivan, the medical director of the Greater Portland Health—Health Care for the Homeless Clinics, on a cold and windy night. “But what I now feel more often, and especially tonight, is sadness as I miss seeing people like Stanley, Robbie, and Frank walk through my clinic door. I miss seeing them on a regular basis. And I know how hard each of them tried to live and not feel the pain of their suffering. And I grieve the senseless loss of life that each of these candles will represent.”
Shay Dufour, a passionate advocate with lived experience, shared about a loved one who passed away this year after a long fight with cancer and being recently housed. “She was vivacious, determined, and kind. Her heart was so open and accepting of anyone she met. And never judged anyone, including me, for their mental health or addiction.”
“We need to stand up and speak up on behalf of the unhoused, mentally ill, addicted and impoverished,” Shay added. “I urge all of you to take a stand and speak up!! Let others hear your concerns and let them know that you are a community of people who care for the lives of those who sadly are at risk of losing their life to deplorable weather conditions, mental illness, violence, and most of all addiction. Let others know we need more affordable housing and more shelters, so that no one has to die on the streets of Portland.”
The Vigilantes (Nate Nickerson, Phil Hoose, Toby Hollander, Peggy Akers, Megan Connolly, Sandi St. George, Ally Giuliano, Maddie Fitzgerald, and Lisa Bisceglia), led the crowd in singing a few songs, including “The Streets of Portland.” LumenARRT (Projection Art Projects) contributed a large-scale projection in Monument Square to memorialize the 45 people that have died this year.
“The unsheltered homelessness crisis facing Maine has never been more visible. This vigil provides us an opportunity to come together as a community and remember the people that we have lost this year,” says Donna Yellen, Preble Street Vice President of Strategic Initiatives. “These deaths are tragic, but if we work together we can prevent them. We know the solutions to homelessness – shelter and housing options in partnership with healthcare. It’s complex, but together, we can have a community where everyone can have a safe and warm place to sleep.”
The annual event is sponsored by the City of Portland, Greater Portland Health, Maine Medical Center, Northern Light Mercy Hospital, and Preble Street.