When she found herself homeless and alone at Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter in 2019, Lisa Franklin was confused, lost and trying to navigate a new world.

What she wasn’t expecting was the humanity shown to her by others in the same situation.

Two new friends, Shawn and Eddie, helped her feel cared for and safe. “They would probably be described by some people in ‘regular society’ as dangerous, untrustworthy or just a couple of drunk guys,” said Franklin, 49. “My experience was they were my guardian angels. They helped me in so many ways.”

On Tuesday, Franklin remembered her two friends, who both died last year, as she spoke to a crowd of about 250 people gathered in Monument Square for the annual Portland Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil. Held every year on the winter solstice, the vigil is meant to bring attention to the challenges of homelessness and remember those who have experienced it and died.

“The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, which also means it’s the longest night of the year, especially for individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Andrew Bove, vice president of social work at Preble Street, a nonprofit human services and anti-poverty agency.

“The night time is a challenging time, especially for folks who might be sleeping in a congregate, crowded setting or who may be sleeping outside in the cold weather. It’s definitely the longest night of homelessness, and we think it’s a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the homeless community.”

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Fifty-one known members of the homeless population in Portland died in 2021, according to Preble Street, which sponsors the memorial vigil each year in conjunction with the city of Portland, Greater Portland Health, Maine Medical Center and Northern Light Mercy Hospital. Bove said that Preble Street gets the number of deaths from information it receives from the providers who work with the homeless and it doesn’t include homeless people from other parts of the state, such as three homeless people who died in a fire in Bangor this month.

As dusk fell outside Preble Street’s learning collaborative building Tuesday, members of the community huddled together in small groups and staff passed out candles in plastic cups. Pastor Karen Orr from Grace-Street Ministry, which works with Preble Street to deliver food and supplies to the homeless, was among the first to arrive. She said conditions for those without housing are especially tough right now.

Lisa Franklin of Portland wipes away tears during the Portland Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil in Monument Square on Tuesday night. “I was remembering sweet, wonderful people that are gone,” said Franklin, who spoke at the event that memorialized the 51 people who experienced homelessness in the city and died in 2021. “I was traveling on the same path, I made it and they didn’t.’  Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“The biggest thing is there’s nowhere for people to sleep,” Orr said. “The one shelter is filled, the hotels are filling up and there are people just sleeping out on cardboard boxes. If you drive by here at night, there are people in all the doorways just trying to stay warm. It’s crazy. It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

The 51 people memorialized at the vigil was a decrease from the 64 deaths in 2020 but remains elevated from the years before the pandemic. Between 2008 and 2019, the number of deaths each year ranged from 20 to 43, averaging about 31.

In her State of the City address Monday, Mayor Kate Snyder said the city’s health and human services staff are working to shelter and provide services for nearly 950 people per night on average.

In her speech, Snyder pleaded with the public to help the city fill a critical need for indoor space during the day. “The need for a place to be warm, get mail, eat a meal, possibly do some laundry and access services is critical,” she said. “Please, if you’re listening and have a physical space that could serve as a day space let us know.”

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On Tuesday night, the crowd lit candles and marched together to Monument Square, where they gathered around the city’s brightly lit Christmas tree to listen to a series of speakers.

Courtney Pladsen, clinical director at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, said she has been working in health care for homeless organizations for the last 11 years and she has lost more patients in the last 18 months than in all the previous years combined.

People gather Tuesday in Monument Square for the candlelight vigil to remember those who died while homeless in Portland in 2021. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“We need people addressing the needs of the moment to provide food and belonging and shelter for people,” Pladsen said. “We need others to work towards creating better systems. We need people with lived experience leading our work. … Tonight I encourage you to acknowledge our collective grief. Share stories of those we lost. Say their names. Tomorrow, we will get back to our work and hope and dream and work towards building a community in which we no longer need a homeless persons’ memorial day.”

After the speeches, members of the crowd took turns reading aloud the names of each of the people known to have died in 2021 and lighting a candle in front of the tree in their honor. The song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” played as those who gathered stood together for a moment in solidarity.

Amy Regan Gallant, who was in the crowd, wiped away tears as people dispersed and she remembered her friend Dee Clarke, an advocate for the homeless and the founder of the organization Survivor Speak USA, which works to end sex trafficking and exploitation. Clarke, who as a young mother had been homeless and lived in shelters, died in November.

Gallant said she tries to come to the vigil every year and it’s always beautiful, but there are always too many names to read.

“We’ll be here together until that list goes away,” she said.


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