Bonnie Guerette hates Mondays, but not for the reason that you might expect.

Koral Mitchell holds back tears as she speaks at Friday’s vigil in Portland about her partner, who died this past year.

After being homeless for the last five years, Guerette recently found stable housing. But when the beginning of the week rolls around, she wonders whether those remaining on the streets and in homeless shelters made it through the weekend.

“I feel panic and start hunting for my friends and my family to make sure they’re OK,” said Guerette, a 52-year-old mother and grandmother. “It’s seems like every week I have learned about another community member’s death. I have lost so many friends.”

Guerette was one of the speakers at Portland’s annual Homeless Person’s Memorial Vigil, which is held on the winter solstice – the longest night of the year.

In 2018, advocates say 36 people without homes died – roughly the same number as last year and fewer than the 44 people who died in 2015.

Roughly 200 people filed into Preble Street’s day shelter at 5 Portland St. on Friday evening. As the wind-driven rain darted through the evening air, a bagpiper played near the courtyard where the homeless gather each day. Inside, the day shelter, which reduced its hours this fall because of funding issues, was dimly lit with Christmas lights, as people handed out hot chocolate and cookies courtesy of Mercy Hospital.

As the ceremony began, many people held candles.

Among those who died this year was 49-year-old Keith Gamache, the longtime partner of 36-year-old Koral Mitchell, who fought through tears as she told their story about being homeless.

At the age of 12, Mitchell took to the streets to escape an abusive home. She was adopted and brought to Portland, but returned to the streets and began using drugs.

For the last 12 years, she and Gamache battled their addictions together and worked to keep each other alive. Nine years ago, they both were diagnosed with HIV, she said, which they got through intravenous drug use. She was housed five years ago at Logan Place, a supportive housing complex developed by Avesta Housing and staffed by Preble Street. She has insurance for medical treatment, but she said Gamache, who found housing last year, did not. He died three months ago after getting an infection, she said.

The 36 members of Portland’s homeless community who died in 2018 are remembered Friday at the annual Homeless Person’s Memorial Vigil at Preble Street in Portland.

“I have even seen everyday working people living paycheck to paycheck losing momentum to maintain,” Mitchell said. “Stress gets overwhelming – death, accidents all become an insurmountable demon to face.”

Dr. Renee Fay-Leblanc, the chief medical director of Greater Portland Health, which provides health care to the homeless, said that the average life expectancy for someone without a home is 28 years shorter than someone who is housed. Yet it takes much more than providing housing to cure homelessness. Other issues – such as addiction, mental illness and a lack of health care – also must be addressed, she said.

“This evening, on the longest night of the year, we remind ourselves that homelessness is deadly and it’s not acceptable,” Fay-Leblanc said. “We must do more, and we must be more, for our community members who experience homelessness today and to prevent homelessness in the future. We all play a role in this problem. Let’s not be complacent.”

Since Preble Street scaled back hours at its day shelter, the Oxford Street Shelter has seen a 57 percent increase in people seeking shelter during the day, according to city officials, who say the shelter often reaches its 169-person capacity in the morning.

Gabrielle McNally, 14, who attended Friday’s vigil for homeless people who died in 2018, said she and her family attend the event every year.

“Although it is likely due to a combination of factors, we have certainly seen a direct impact on day services usage since the early (Preble Street) closure schedule began,” said Meaghan Void, the city’s interim shelter director. “We tend to fill up our first-floor space very early in the morning, especially on weekends, when few services are available.”

Once the speakers finished, others in the Resource Center lined up to the read the names of people lost over the last year and others whom they wanted to remember and lit candles in their honor. After nearly 15 minutes of reading names as a live band gently hummed “Amazing Grace,” 64 candles were glowing in the dimly lit room.

This was the 24th annual vigil. It was co-sponsored by Preble Street, Mercy Hospital, Maine Medical Center, Greater Portland Health and the city of Portland.

“This vigil is to mourn and remember as a community,” Guerette said. “It’s also an opportunity to embrace our humanity and compassion and love for one another.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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