There was a time when the whole community would have sat up and taken notice.

Last Thursday, just as he was rolling out of bed, Mark Swann got a call from Preble Street, the social services agency in Portland over which he presides as executive director.

The news was not good: A longtime Preble Street client with chronic illness had stretched out on a thin mat the night before in the agency’s Resource Center, used to catch the overflow each night from the nearby Oxford Street shelter. When staff tried to awaken him that morning, the man was dead.

Swann made a mental note: Portland’s homeless death toll for the year had just risen from 37 to 38.

Moments later, as he dressed for work, Swann’s phone rang again. Another Preble Street client, also ill for as long as anyone could remember, had just been found on a walking trail near the Eastern Prom. Also dead.

Number 39.


Arriving at work that morning, Swann was struck not by the widespread trauma from two deaths in one night, but by the lack thereof. Most if not all of the 300-plus people packed into the soup kitchen had heard, but in a place where death happens regularly and without warning, it remained business as usual – save the roped-off courtyard to make room for the undertaker.

“A police officer on the scene (at Preble Street) told me he was surprised there weren’t even more deaths. And I found myself agreeing. How awful is that?” Swann asked the crowd that filled Monument Square just after sunset Monday to commemorate all the homeless who have died in Portland this year.

By Monday, the longest night of the year, that number had risen to 43.

It’s easy, as the debates rage on over panhandlers and alcoholics, heroin addicts and highway median dwellers, to blame the down-and-out for the dilemmas that ensnare them.

They choose this most difficult of lifestyles, or so the pretzel logic goes, to avoid all the hard work that goes into being responsible, upstanding citizens.

They come here for the easy life, the handouts, their free ride on the cycle of dependency.


They know a good deal when they see it and, once here, will never, ever leave.

And then they die. Right before our eyes. And still, even as we look the other way, it’s their own damn fault.

Swann normally doesn’t speak at the annual vigil – Monday marked the 21st such gathering. But this year’s total, a record high, coincides with a climate that has grown uglier, less compassionate and angrier than ever when it comes to those who, for reasons that defy the easy sound bite, need help simply to survive.

And so this year, Swann spoke up.

“I’m sick of this,” he said as the candles flickered and rush hour engulfed nearby Congress Street. “These deaths, this broken system of care that barely exists anymore, it’s not just tragic. It’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous. It’s indefensible.”

It’s also avoidable. If Preble Street has proved one thing over the years, it’s that well-integrated services – short- and long-term affordable housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, employment counseling and training, health care and nutrition – work wonders in getting people off the street and into the mainstream of productive society.


Hack away at those services in the name of fiscal austerity, however, and it’s only a matter of time before the number of vigil candles starts to go up … and up … and up …

Noted Swann: “We need to connect the dots between the numbers of people dying – and the manner in which they’ve died – to public policy. All of us need to do that.

“When a shelter closes because of funding cuts, people will die.

“When addiction treatment services close, people will die.

“When mental health services are dictated by bureaucracy-driven, 15-minute billable units for only those with insurance, then people will die.

“When one of the few remaining apartment buildings in Portland open to poor people is sold to someone who immediately increases the rent above General Assistance limits, then people will die.


“When an out-of-state business can turn 54 units of housing for poor people into upscale hotel rooms because of a loophole in city ordinances, people will die.

“When wheelchair-bound senior citizens languish in our shelters because there are no nursing home beds available to them, people will die.

“All of these things are happening. All of these things are real.”

Some no doubt will deny all of that – and so much more. A news story on the vigil had no sooner been posted on the Press Herald’s website Monday evening when, from the comfort of their own keyboards, the homeless haters joined in full-throated gloat.

Boasted one: “I keep my house temp at 75-80 degrees all winter, around the clock. Nice and toasty.”

Observed another, “It does seem that addiction is used as a badge, or at least an excuse.”


Then there’s the commenter who could truly benefit from a little soul searching – particularly in this season of giving.

In addition to finding people like Swann “shameful,” this person suggested, “Seriously, wouldn’t taking up a collection for bus tickets to Miami be more humane than these useless demonstrations?”

Think about that. A candlelight vigil, four days before Christmas, for 43 fellow humans who died in our shelters and on our streets in the past year. This is a “useless demonstration?”

God bless us. Every one.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.