Lou Hoecker, a prep cook for Preble Street Food Security Hub, seasons turkeys with fresh herbs on Thanksgiving morning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Nasar Zackaria didn’t know it was Thanksgiving until mid-morning on Thursday.

Zackaria, 29, is homeless and currently living at the encampment in Portland’s Harbor View Park.

It’s hard to keep track of the days, he said. Life there is a blur.

For many, Thanksgiving means time spent with family and friends, sitting around dinner tables and watching football.

But that’s not the case for Portland’s homeless residents.

Knowing the holidays can be a particularly isolating time, social service organizations and good Samaritans did what they could Thursday to give the homeless population a hearty meal on Thanksgiving.


At Preble Street’s food security hub, workers spent days preparing meals to send to shelters and nonprofits across the city; the City of Portland hosted its first Thanksgiving dinner for about 200 clients at the new Homeless Service Center; and a group organized with the help of wellness center Good Medicine Collective prepared and handed out over 150 meals to people at the Harbor View Park encampment.

Zackaria was a recipient of one of those meals – a takeout box filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, a roll, vegetables, stuffing, and apple pie.

“It makes us feel like we’re not forgotten,” he said. “Even though we don’t have a family to go to, we’re thankful for each other and good people, but we’re still mad about our situation.”

Lisa Harmon, 39, who recently broke her arm slipping in the pervasive mud at the homeless encampment at Harbor View Park, said she didn’t realize it was Thanksgiving on Thursday morning. Later in the day, a Thanksgiving meal she received was stolen from her. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Zackaria, who immigrated to Maine from the Sudan in 2001, said he has been homeless for almost two years. A breakup with his girlfriend plunged him into a deep depression and he slowly stopped showing up to his job at Popeyes.

Zackaria has family in Maine, but he’s not in touch with them. His parents were physically and emotionally abusive, he said. He’s been emancipated since he was 17.



There are 4,258 homeless people in Maine, according to the U.S. Census – a number that has quadrupled since 2021.

The growth in homelessness in Maine mirrors a national trend that began in 2016. There are currently almost 600,000 homeless people in the U.S., according to the census.

It’s not clear exactly how many homeless people are living in the Portland area, but volunteers were out in force trying to help them Thursday.

Preble Street’s food security hub was buzzing with energy at 9 a.m.

Chefs, employees, and volunteers bustled around filling brown paper bags with snacks, mashing potatoes, and packaging lunches and dinners.

“Hot,” called out sous chef Toufiq Fekkak repeatedly, as he lifted giant containers of boiling potatoes off the stovetop and moved them to a metal prep table.


In the background, upbeat music played. Employees and volunteers chatted and laughed as they did their work.

The food hub has been prepping Thanksgiving dinner since last weekend. They often do things far in advance, but Thanksgiving dinner is a more robust meal so it takes more work, said Head Chef Dani Walczak, 31.

Walczak has been head chef for two months and has worked at the Preble Street food security hub for around a year and a half. Before that she worked in farming, as a cook and as a baker. She took the job at Preble to help people in need.

“I wanted to feed folks in my community,” she said. “It’s hard to live in Portland and not see people struggling. I thought I could use my skills to help.”

She said it’s important to do something special for Thanksgiving, but also that homeless people need food every day, not just on holidays.

Ryan Tinker, assistant chef for Preble Street Food Security Hub, mashes potatoes on Thanksgiving morning. Tinker mashed a total of 10 such pans for Thanksgiving dinner at the Homeless Services Center and other Preble Street shelters. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The food hub made 570 Thanksgiving dinners, each complete with mashed potatoes, roasted delicata squash and carrots, apple sausage stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and, of course, turkey.


Like most other meals Preble Street prepares, everything was made from scratch.

Ellen Decotiis has been volunteering with Preble Street twice a week for 20 years. Thursday mornings are Decotiis’ regular volunteer shift. “I know it’s a big day so I kept my regular shift,” said Decotiis, as she packed brown paper bags with crackers and bars.

Decotiis has an immense amount of respect for the food hub and the work it does.

“Every time I come here I’m amazed,” she said. “It’s the most well-oiled machine I’ve ever seen and the meals they put out are unbelievable.”

The food hub serves 26 towns in southern Maine, prepares 2,000 hot meals every day, and distributes them to the YMCA, the Homeless Services Center, and the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine, among many other places.



Portland’s shelters have served Thanksgiving for at least as long as the 10 years that Jason Chan has been at Preble Street. But this is the first year it is being served at the Homeless Services Center.

It’s “incredibly exciting,” to serve Thanksgiving in the new facility, said Jason Chan, the director of operations at the Homeless Services Center. “This new building here allows us to expand and enhance on what we were doing before.”

Just a few minutes before go-time on Thursday evening, Christopher Milligan, the center’s food service operations manager, surveyed the bright kitchen. The five volunteers made the final preparations, lining up a few boxes of pie, and cracking open a can of whipped cream.

Milligan said he was excited to serve a full-plated Thanksgiving meal this year, rather than the boxed meals they often have to serve on weekends and other short-staffed days.

“You eat with your eyes first,” he said, so a real plate of food has a different feel.

Jason Sugars, 41, prepares to take a bite of sweet potatoes while sitting on the edge of a homeless encampment at Harbor View Park in Portland where he has been tenting since mid-October. Sugars, who has been homeless since May, received a free Thanksgiving meal on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

At least half of their clients are asylum seekers, at least until next week when the city opens the new shelter for asylum seekers, Milligan said, so there’s often a communication barrier.


“But the second food is involved, you kind of transcend that,” he said.

Just after 5 p.m., the kitchen window rolled up, the smell of warm bread wafting out to the dozens of people already in line. For over an hour, the small team handed out plates loaded with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, cranberry sauce, and rolls – the works.

The whoosh of the whipped cream can be nearly constant as hungry clients make their way through the line, ending with a tough choice: apple, cranberry apple, pumpkin, blueberry, chocolate, or vanilla creme pie. Chocolate, though, was the clear favorite. Choruses of “Happy Thanksgiving” echoed throughout the line all evening, sprinkled with exclamations over the food.

Lyse Uwera, 44, placed a hand on her stomach and said she ate too much – the true American cultural Thanksgiving experience, she said.

Uwera, who immigrated to the U.S. from Rwanda in 2013, said she has been homeless for the better part of the last nine years.

She works in nursing, caring for elderly people during the day, but said it’s been difficult to find and secure housing. She’s hopeful though, that she’ll find something soon. Seeing people leaving the shelter because they’ve found housing has been encouraging. She’s choosing to be patient.


“When life just doesn’t give you a chance, what else can you do?” she said.

But on Thursday, she said she was grateful to be alive, be at the shelter, and not be alone.


Debbie Lowell, 59, and Darren Welch, 60, also said they were grateful to be alive and for each other. The couple has been together for 16 years.

Lowell and Welch have been homeless for the last 18 months, staying at the shelter on and off since August. They’re both on social security disability.

Nasar Zackaria, 29, is living in a tent at the homeless encampment at Harbor View Park in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

They’ll leave soon – Welch has a knee operation coming up in a few weeks, and they’ll be staying in a motel before and after. He’s keeping his fingers crossed that they’ll be in an apartment soon. He got his housing voucher last week.


Before the shelter, they were sleeping on the ground outside of City Hall. It was such a rainy summer and the concrete was so hard. It was too much. Sometimes they’d walk around for four days without sleeping. They’re too old, Lowell said, and now it’s too cold.

The shelter is warm and the dinner was delicious, Lowell said. They’re hoping for leftover turkey sandwiches on Friday.

Chan, the director of operations, said it’s important to have things like Thanksgiving dinner.

“Not having anyone to share Thanksgiving with can be incredibly difficult in an already incredibly difficult situation so we try to be here for people and even though we might not be actual relatives we can at least be here with them and provide a sense of community and support,” he said.

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