About 200 people on Monday night marched along Preble Street to Monument Square, where they lit candles in memory of the 35 homeless persons who died this year in Portland.

Donna Yellen, chief program officer at Preble Street, a Portland-based soup kitchen and resource center for homeless people, told the crowd that the number of deaths is the highest since Preble Street and the city started holding the annual vigil 20 years ago.

Yellen later explained that members of the city’s homeless population are particularly vulnerable as they struggle to find food and deal with illnesses that often go untreated.

One of those who died this year was Rebecca Dennison, who spoke at the city’s annual vigil in December 2013. Her friend Judy Newell said Dennison died after suffering a heart attack.

Newell, who was homeless for 15 months, is an advocate for Homeless Voices for Justice.

“Rebecca had a home when she passed away but she didn’t have health insurance,” Newell told the crowd. “No one should ever have to put their health on hold, but when you are homeless that is what you have to do.”


Newell said that when she was homeless, the challenge of spending her days living in and out of city shelters and camping in woods occupied all her time. She found it impossible to find a job, see a doctor, or locate a place to live.

“Camping in the woods provided the silence I needed at times, but it wasn’t the safest place for a woman to be,” Newell said. “These were the choices I was faced with, sleeping in a shelter with strangers or camping out. Being homeless isn’t easy. It’s a full-time job.”

That changed in September 2013, when Newell moved into a Section 8-funded apartment. She loves the privacy and being able to take a hot shower. After her life settled down, she was diagnosed in June with breast cancer. She is receiving treatment.

“If I was still on the street, I don’t think I’d be alive today to tell my story,” she said.

Newell lit a candle for her friend and spoke her first name into a microphone. She was followed by others who placed candles on a table in the memory of others who died, such as Hollywood W., Charlie G., Tanya H. and Steve H.

Dr. Ann Lemire, medical director for Portland’s Public Health Division, asked the crowd to remember those who died this year.

The 35 deaths is the highest number among the homeless population since 2012, when 30 homeless persons died. Twenty people died in 2013.

“They brought light and warmth to those who were lucky enough to have crossed their paths,” Lemire said.


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