Rebecca Dennison’s voice broke as she said her friend’s name, “Mary Lou.”

“Mary Lou passed away recently. I’m missing her so much,” Dennison told the roughly 200 people gathered Friday night in Monument Square for Portland’s annual vigil to remember the homeless people who died during the year. “She was frail and sassy at the same time, but oh, what a lovely lady!”

Mary Lou was one of the 21 homeless people who died in the city this year, and at 60-something, one of the oldest. She died in hospice care, after staying more than 280 days in Florence House, the city’s shelter for women.

Portland’s shelters have been filled to capacity for years, said Mark Swann, the executive director of Preble Street. Earlier this year, demand surged to a new high, with more than 500 people seeking shelter in September for the first time in Portland’s history.

Only 272 beds, cots and sleeping mats are available each night in the six shelters run by the city and nonprofit groups. When the shelters are full, 75 additional mats are placed in the Preble Street Resource Center to handle the overflow. When that is full, an additional 17 mats are placed in the city’s general assistance office. And when that is full, people in need must sit in chairs in the city’s refugee services office.

Swann said Friday that homeless advocates were “happily surprised” to realize only 21 people had died this year, one of the lowest tallies in recent years, given the surge in demand. Last year, 30 people died while living on the streets, the highest number to date.

On the edge of the crowd Friday night, Mayor Michael Brennan watched the ceremony. “No one should pass away unrecognized,” he said.

Earlier this year, the city adopted a long-term strategy to prevent and end homelessness. However, funding has not been immediately available for some of the key components of that plan, such as rental assistance and construction money for supportive housing for the chronically homeless. A survey in January found that the number of homeless people in Portland rose 70 percent, from 276 people to 480 people, from 2009 to 2013. The rest of the state saw a 17 percent increase, from 595 people to 695 people.

“It’s always a sad day, but I think it’s important we do this,” Swann said as the crowd gathered at Preble Street and – led by a bagpiper and trailed by a drummer beating a slow dirge – walked to Monument Square as a light rain began to fall.

“We are here to let the people on the streets know they are not forgotten,” said the Rev. Ben Shambaugh, the dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral. “Our candles pierce the darkness … and we will work for the day when a gathering like this isn’t needed.”

Off to the side of the vigil, a group of homeless teenagers held candles and watched the procession of people going up to light candles and read the names of the dead.

“This gives me hope. This shows how many people really care,” said Samantha Howe, who said she was in and out of shelters as a child with her mom, and has been on her own at the teen homeless shelter in Portland for almost two years. Howe said she recently graduated from high school and is looking for a job.

Scores of people in the crowd came forward to light votive candles in memory of the dead. One man walked away, wiping tears from his eyes.

“I’ve lost friends. I’m here for Richard Cobb, and Donna,” said Brian Hall, 43, a cook who has been living on the streets since January, when he lost his job. “I know people die all the time, but here it hurts a little bit more.”

Next to Hall, three people who work at Preble Street shared a hug.

“We spend all of our time trying to avoid an event like this,” said resource center coordinator Bill Burns, gesturing to the crowd gathered at the base of the towering Christmas tree. “We’re going to keep working to make sure everyone has housing.”

Burns, who has worked at Preble Street for three years, said the vigil is more than a memorial; it raises awareness of homelessness in the community.

“It’s not an abstraction. It’s a reality. There are hundreds of homeless on the streets every day in Portland,” Burns said.

“This event helps refocus us for the future. Because we don’t want to be here next year.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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