Forty homeless people died in Greater Portland this year and Nancy McKeil has a solemn message for those fortunate enough to have a home and warm bed to sleep in this winter.

“It should never happen,” said McKeil, who lives in Section 8 housing in Portland. “No one should ever have to be homeless.”

McKeil knows all too well the devastating consequences of not having shelter and food. Her daughter, 31-year-old Trishia Crocker, was homeless this year. A friend found her body on Oct. 6 in the tent where she had been living. She left three young daughters, ages 11, 9 and 3.

McKeil was among the 150 people who participated in the city’s 23rd Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil on Thursday night, mourning the lives of those who died by gathering at the Preble Street Resource Center and marching along Preble Street to Monument Square in downtown Portland.

During the event, friends, family members and supporters held candles and read aloud the names of the deceased.

Portland’s vigil took place on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, and one of the coldest so far, with temperatures dropping below 20 degrees. Lows were expected to reach 11 degrees by late Thursday night, the National Weather Service in Gray predicted.

According to statistics provided by Preble Street, 29 men and 11 women living on the streets of Portland or the surrounding area died in 2017.

Dan D’Ippolito, a spokesman for Preble Street, said their average age was 48. In 2016, there were 34 deaths recorded in Portland, while in 2015, a total of 43 homeless persons died.

Those figures have climbed steadily since 2008 and 2009 when 21 and 20 homeless people, respectively, died in Portland.

“The life expectancy of our friends who endure chronic homelessness is 28 years shorter, on average, than that of people who are housed,” Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, said in a statement. “The human toll of allowing these vulnerable neighbors to slip through the cracks is devastating, not only to those who knew and loved the 40 people we’ve lost so far this year, but to our community as a whole.”

McKeil said she became desperate and tried to help her daughter by taking her into her Section 8 apartment, but regulations would not allow her to stay more than a night or two.

“She had nowhere to go,” McKeil said in an interview after the vigil.

The one blessing to come out of her family’s tragedy is that McKeil, 62, will get to see two of her granddaughters for Christmas. Even so, her grandchildren won’t bring her daughter back.

“I miss her so much,” McKeil said.

Cheryl Harkins, a member of Homeless Voices for Justice, spoke at the vigil and told the audience that she was homeless for the better part of seven years.

“I was one of the lucky ones. I survived,” Harkins said.

She urged Portland to continue its efforts to eradicate homelessness.

“Homelessness is not a disease. It’s a crime against the disadvantaged,” Harkins said.

Elena Schmidt, Preble Street’s chief development officer, also addressed the marchers. She has been working with the city’s homeless population for 26 years.

Schmidt said those who died in 2017 were victims of society’s upside down values and greed. She said many Americans have failed to raise themselves above their own self interests. Schmidt said Americans need to foster more love and compassion for those less fortunate.

“We value personal prosperity above fairness and human life,” she said.

On any given day, Preble Street serves 1,000 hot meals to the city’s homeless. The facility also provides nine bathrooms, four showers, three laundry machines and 150 lockers to help people meet basic needs, Swann said.

Clients also can use the facility to meet with case workers, collect their mail, and use phones to contact family, doctors and employers.

“There is a world of hurt that reveals itself each and every day at the Resource Center, and it is a part of our mission to be there for those suffering,” Swann wrote in a Dec. 12 message posted on the center’s website.

The city of Portland recently expanded the Oxford Street Shelter’s hours, which means the shelter will be open during the day. The city also is developing plans to build a new emergency shelter to replace Oxford Street, but the location has not been selected yet.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]