BANGOR, Maine — Fifty-one brightly burning candles stood tall on a table in Hammond Street Congregational Church symbolizing the light of each local homeless person who, in the last decade, has died on the streets in the Bangor region from cold or illness.
Six of those candles represent people who have died in the last year.
“Too many of our friends’ and neighbors’ final resting place is the street,” Bangor Mayor Gerry Palmer said at the Monday night memorial service. He added later, “We recognize that their lives mattered, and had meaning.”
Palmer proclaimed the day Homeless Persons’ Awareness Day, noting that homeless people are three to four times more likely to die prematurely from illness and lack of “safe, decent, affordable housing.”
Several area service agencies and groups partnered to sponsor the third annual local Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, to honor the people who, for the most part, died alone and without public recognition.
The day is marked nationally on Dec. 21 each year, because it is the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.
Bangor’s event, which attracted about 75 community members, was postponed a day because of Sunday’s massive snowstorm.
Monday’s memorial started at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter with participants holding small white candles and walking in the bitter cold to the church. The march through the streets of Bangor was symbolic of the daily struggles homeless people face, especially during Maine’s harsh winters.
Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards led the candlelight walk. After the ceremony, a former homeless woman came up to him and thanked him for his work. She could be heard saying, “He used to check up on me every day. Sometimes two or three times.”
Homelessness remains a significant problem in Bangor, where an estimated 1,000 people are homeless on any given night, according to a news release from Penobscot Community Health Care.
On Monday night, three survivors of homelessness helped to honor those who have perished by telling how the “system” worked for them.
One was Mark McClellan, who told the crowd how he arrived in Bangor in 1999, after skipping around the United States as a homeless person. It was a chance meeting with Mike Andrick, former program manager at the homeless shelter, who helped him take steps toward stabilizing his life, he said.
“Then I met a guy at the shelter who got me going to AA [Alcoholic Anonymous] meetings … now, it’s been many, many years,” he said. “Doors opened.”
McClellan, who is now married, proudly said he has held a job for three years and been sober for six.
Andrick, who is now a therapist at the Summer Street Community Clinic, said, “Many, many faces, names and personalities come to mind” on this day. He said he remembers “some really great, great people. Some great human beings.”
There is only one way to solve homelessness, Andrick said.
“The only solution is love, and love comes from community,” he said.
And it was to the community that Mary Jude, director of homeless initiatives for Penobscot Community Health Care, appealed to help end the plight of those who live on the streets.
“We’re here to remember those who died of homelessness,” she said. “It’s a call to all of you to abolish homelessness.”
To help, people can donate time, energy or money to help those less fortunate, or support the Oasis Program, a respite program to provide a supportive place to stay for “folks discharged from hospitals,” she said.
Community partners annually organize the memorial in Bangor, including PCHC in partnership with its Summer Street Community Clinic, Hammond Street Congregational Church, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, Community Health and Counseling Services, the Acadia Recovery Community and the Eastern Maine Peace and Justice Center.
Monday’s vigil gave voice to those who historically have been forgotten, whose only crime was being poor or ill, Jude said.
The names of the people who have died without a place to call home were not read to protect the privacy of their families, she said. Instead, people quietly stood and walked to the front of the church to individually light a candle for each.
Then the church’s bells were rung.