December 22, 2012

Candlelight vigil remembers 30 homeless who died in Portland in 2012

It's the highest ever number of homeless dead tallied in Maine's largest city.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Sherri Ferrier has been homeless for six months, since she fled her small apartment on Congress Street, driven out by a bedbug infestation that made life unbearable.

click image to enlarge

Sherri Ferrier, participates in the annual homeless vigil at Monument Square on Friday. Participants announced the names of 30 homeless people who died in the past year. Ferrier, who recently moved into a shelter, was there to remember her friend Deb, among others.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Until recently, the Camden native lived in a tent in the so-called "hobo jungle," a brushy area off outer Commercial Street that's occupied by some of the city's homeless residents. Two nights ago, the bitter cold forced Ferrier to move into a local emergency shelter.

On Friday afternoon, as night fell on the winter solstice, Ferrier stood in Monument Square, clutching a small white candle, its flame doused by cold rain and gusting winds.

"I started getting frostbite on my feet, so I had to do something," Ferrier said, explaining her decision to move indoors. "I put my name on some lists. I hope to get my own place soon."

Ferrier, 41, was one of about 100 people who gathered in the downtown plaza for a yearly candlelight vigil to remember 30 homeless people who died while living on the streets of Maine's largest city in 2012.

City officials, homeless advocates, shelter residents and others braved foul weather to deliver speeches and sing songs of remembrance. Some wore rain gear and winter coats, others huddled beneath plastic garbage bags.

"We considered canceling," Mayor Michael Brennan said after the vigil, "but we recognized that people who don't have a home deal with this kind of weather all the time. We came here today because nobody should be forgotten."

Participants announced the names of each deceased homeless person, saying only the first letter of their surnames to protect their identities:

Kayla O., Big John M., Sean H., John C., Tim K., Deborah R., Ken H., Stephen L., Carol L., Debra A., Damien K., Michael C., Steve L., Laura V., Sally M., Mitch A., Tonia H., Bob B., Richard H., Bill G., Steve H., Garth B., Richard L., Elizabeth W., Jeffrey C., Charles S., Wayne S., Lorrie B., George V. and Paul B.

Jim Devine, a homeless advocate, remembered Steve Huston, who was homeless often during his life but wasn't when he died earlier this year.

"He did much work to help those in need," Devine said before recalling words that Huston delivered at a past vigil.

"The homeless community needs hope," Huston said back then. "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."

Then Devine added Huston's name "to the list of those we will never forget."

The list of the homeless who died this year is among the longest ever tallied in Portland, equal to when 30 died here in 2005, said Donna Yellen, advocacy director at Preble Street, a nonprofit agency that serves the homeless population.

Yellen said homeless people get the same diseases as everyone else. However, she said, because of difficult life circumstances, they are three to six times more likely to become gravely ill and remain sick for a longer period.

The average age of the homeless people who died this year in Portland was 50, Yellen said. The youngest was a 22-year-old woman; the oldest was a 64-year-old man."If any of us had a neighbor who was hurting, we wouldn't allow it, we wouldn't forget them," Yellen said. "These people were our neighbors."

Sherri Ferrier joined Friday's vigil to remember Deb and Pauly and Janet and others who died this year, or maybe last year.

"There are so many," Ferrier said, her wet, blond hair framing her somber face. "My hope is that people can get together and help."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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