Tuesday evening marked the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year, and the longest night of homelessness for our unhoused neighbors. Every year on the winter solstice, community partners – including the Portland Health and Human Services Department, Greater Portland Health, Maine Medical Center, Northern Light Mercy Hospital and Preble Street – host a vigil to mourn the lives that were cut short, and to reaffirm a commitment to ensuring that everyone who needs a home finds one.

Lisa Franklin of Portland wipes away tears Tuesday evening during a vigil at Monument Square to remember the 51 unhoused people who died over the last year. “I was remembering sweet, wonderful people that are gone. I was traveling on the same path; I made it and they didn’t,” she said of the tearful moment. Franklin, who has been unhoused, was among the event speakers. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

In Portland, 51 people who experienced homelessness in their lifetime died over the last year. These lives didn’t have to end as soon as they did. The life expectancy of people who endure homelessness is 28 years shorter, on average, than that of people who remain housed. I have worked in health care for homeless health centers for the past 10 years, and I’ve lost more patients in the last 18 months than I have in all the previous years combined.

As a medical provider, it’s my honor to get to know folks and hear people’s stories and, in a small way, get to accompany them on their journey. The amount of time we spend together truly connects us. I recently heard someone share a quote about grief that really resonated with me: “Grief is all the unexpressed love, gratitude and appreciation we feel for someone that we didn’t get to share with them while they are alive.” I appreciate this perspective because it doesn’t dwell on the sadness of the loss. Instead, it reminds me to reminisce about things I loved about each of the community members we lost this year.

I will miss Kim and seeing the things she collected; every week, Kim would come to our appointment and show me what she found on her journey. She helped me slow down and appreciate the beauty around me.

I will miss seeing Vaughn flash his smile; he would be in mid-outburst, stop, crack a joke, smile and then go on with the outburst.

I will miss seeing Emily and how proud she was of her daughter; I could see the joy emanating from Emily when she would talk about her.

We need everyone – community members, medical clinicians, peers, loved ones, social workers, neighbors, landlords, employers, faith leaders and civic, state, national and elected leaders – in this movement to end homelessness. We need people addressing the critical needs of the moment, and others to work on creating better systems. We need people with lived experience leading this work because we know that the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. We need healers, artists, organizers, spiritual guides, good cooks and musicians because we need to feed our souls and our bodies. Everyone has a place in this community, and none of us can end homelessness alone.

The lives of the people we lost this year were cut short because of the systemic oppression of people in poverty. Our community has experienced an immense amount of collective grief this past year, and I’m mad as hell. But I won’t let these deaths bury me in sadness; they will fuel my fight to end homelessness and work toward more just and equitable systems. Will you join me?

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