Courtney Abbott, center right, hugs a friend during Portland’s annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil on Wednesday. Fifty-one people who experienced homelessness in Portland have died this year, according to Preble Street, the social services nonprofit. Abbott is homeless and has been on and off since 2014. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Larry Dyer never knew how bad homelessness was in Portland until he experienced it himself.

“I used to drive by and say, ‘I will never live like that,’ but let me tell you, it can happen to any one of us,” said Dyer, 58.

Dyer became addicted to opioids after hurting his back while working construction, and it led him to living on the streets. He found himself dirty, cold, hungry and alone – and he was surprised to see how many others were, too.

“I couldn’t believe how big this problem is in our community,” said Dyer, who is now in a sober living house, and who spoke to a crowd gathered in Monument Square Wednesday night on the challenges of being homeless.

He was joined by hundreds of others for the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil, which is held annually to remember unhoused people who have died and to call attention to homelessness, especially during the winter months.

The event is sponsored by the city of Portland, Greater Portland Health, Maine Medical Center, Northern Light Mercy Hospital and Preble Street, a nonprofit that provides emergency services and programs to address homelessness, hunger and poverty.


The vigil, which is always held on the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – memorialized 51 members of the homeless community who died in 2022 – the same number as last year. Eleven of them were under the age of 35, with the youngest being 23.

On average, the life expectancy of people who are homeless is about 28 years shorter than that of people who are housed, according to Preble Street, which said the causes of death for those remembered Wednesday included cancer, overdoses, heart disease, suicide and chronic medical conditions.

Alicia Morris holds a poster Wednesday with photos of some of the 51 people who died in 2022 while experiencing homelessness in Portland. Morris was homeless in Portland several years ago and attended the annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The vigil came as Portland and Maine are seeing high numbers of homelessness.

“We have an ongoing opioid epidemic that continues to increase in severity,” said Andrew Bove, vice president of social work for Preble Street. “Couple that with the pandemic and the isolation people have been feeling, as well as new people entering the homeless system in the state, and I think it’s fair to say we are seeing more people become homeless and we are losing more people.”

Portland is currently providing shelter to 845 people on a nightly basis between its Oxford Street Shelter, Family Shelter and a handful of hotels. That count doesn’t include people staying in private shelters, sleeping on the street or being housed in a hotel in Saco that is being run by Catholic Charities – an effort that has helped offset some of the numbers the city is housing.

Preble Street recently opened a new 40-bed wellness shelter, Elena’s Way, aimed at people who are restricted from or who have had trouble accessing other shelters. Bove said the new shelter is helping fill a dire need, but they’ve also been held up by a staffing shortage.


“We are not immune to the staffing challenges people are seeing across the state and in the social services sector. … We need to fill five or six full-time positions to really allow us to meet the full capacity of 40,” Bove said.

As dusk fell outside Preble Street’s learning collaborative building on Portland Street Wednesday, members of the community lit candles and walked a few short blocks to Monument Square, where they gathered around the brightly lit holiday tree for the vigil. A brightly colored banner read, “Together Our Community Can End Homelessness.”


City Councilor Regina Phillips, who along with Dyer was one of three speakers to address the crowd, said the issue of homelessness is one that affects everyone. She encouraged people to check on their friends and neighbors, and if they themselves are struggling, to ask for help.

“We cannot stop,” Phillips said. “We must be sure to check on those without a warm place to stay, a meal to eat, medicine to take, so that we don’t increase the number of the 51 individuals who died.”

Karlee Foss, who is currently homeless, shared memories of one of the women who died this year, whom she identified only by her first name, Lolita, and whom she said had a profound impact on her and others who have stayed at the Florence House shelter.


“She was a very kind and welcoming soul,” said Foss, 29. “She was always cheerful and if you had a bad day or were sad, her contagious laugh was sure to make you feel better.”

Foss also drew attention to the case of a 23-year-old homeless woman, Bethany Kelley, whose death on Nov. 18 police recently ruled a homicide. Foss said she didn’t know Kelley, but someone who did told her that she was “incredibly resilient, a warrior for herself and her family.”

Kelley’s death, Foss said, is a reminder of the struggles and challenges of homelessness and changes that are needed.

“People that are homeless shouldn’t be treated like they are outcasts,” Foss said. “It’s almost like we have a disease. We should feel like we belong. It’s our voices that matter. And housing should not be a privilege. It is a human right.”

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