I can still remember my first night at the Oxford Street Shelter. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would be spending the next 15 months homeless in Portland, sleeping at Oxford Street and Florence House, and camping out in the woods. There were times when so many people were staying at the shelter that I had to sit up in a chair all night.

Being homeless isn’t easy. And no matter how hard I’d try, finding a job or a place to live was nearly impossible. Homelessness is really hard to overcome.

On Sept. 26, 2013, with the help of a housing voucher and my Opportunity Alliance and Preble Street caseworkers, I moved into my apartment. Then in June of this year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I was lucky to catch it early, because I’m able to get the treatment I need. The last thing I thought about when I was homeless was getting a mammogram. But the stability of having my own home allowed me to focus on my health.

My friend Rebecca died unexpectedly of a heart attack just a few months ago. If you were at last year’s vigil, it was her voice you heard. She had a home when she passed away, but she didn’t have health insurance and had to put her health on hold even when she wasn’t feeling well in the days before she passed.

No one should ever have to put their health or life on hold. But that’s what people like me and Rebecca are forced to do. That’s why having a home is so important – it saves lives. It saved mine, and I can’t help but think that it also would have saved the lives of my friends, those we remembered on the longest night of the year.

Judy Newell

Portland