BANGOR, Maine — “Mary Jane. Mike. Frances. George. Ed. Trevor. Bill,” Mark Doty, senior pastor at Hammond Street Congregational Church, read Monday night from a list of names of people who died while homeless in the Bangor area over the last decade.
By the time Doty was finished, he had read the names of 51 people — eight of whom died during the past year. Fifty-one candles were lighted inside the church, one for each of the deceased, and the church bells tolled 51 times.
The Bangor commemoration, now in its fourth year, attracted about 100 people. The event was among more than 100 held nationwide to mark National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, observed nationally each Dec. 21 because that it the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.
The local event began with a candlelight procession from the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter with participants holding small white candles and walking in the bitter cold to an informal memorial service at the church.
The point, in large part, was to give voice to those who historically have been forgotten, some of them dying alone and without public recognition. The march through the streets of Bangor also was symbolic of the daily struggles homeless people face, especially during Maine’s harsh winters.
“This service is about courage, dignity, hope and community,” Michael Andrick, a therapist at the Summer Street Community Clinic, said during Monday’s service.
“Each of the homeless individuals today that we’re [remembering] was one of a kind, with unique gifts, attributes and hopes and aspirations, said Andrick, a former program manager at the homeless shelter.
“These are persons who were mostly unknown to each other. They came from different places and situations,” he said. “They suffered from various afflictions and wounds to the body, the mind and the soul. What they all had in common [was that] their lives were impacted by this thing they call homelessness.
“Each struggled mightily over whatever odds they faced as best they knew how. What tribute shall we give them today?” he asked.
“One way of honoring the dead is to bring life and hope to the living and pray for the dead and fight like heck for the living. We must gather as a community … grieve the loss of our loved ones and reaffirm our work for the spirit of hope. We must continue our charitable efforts to provide direct support for the people who are experiencing severe poverty and homelessness.
“To provide services to the homeless is not an act of mercy, but an act of justice,” he said.
Among those remembered was Richard Morgan, who died in September.
“He was my best friend. I’m doing this for him,” said a homeless man who wanted to remain anonymous and who was among those who took part in the procession and service.
Also participating was Linda Asaro, who became homeless three months ago, when her work hours were reduced and she no longer could afford to pay her rent.
Asaro, who is 57, said homelessness can happen to anyone, especially now given the poor economy.
“I certainly didn’t expect it to happen to me,” she said.
Asaro, however, is one of the lucky ones. With the support of staff from the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, she has found a job in the kitchen at the Phillips-Strickland House in Bangor and plans to move out of the shelter and into an apartment before the new year.
Despite a great deal of progress over the past two decades, homelessness remains a significant problem in Bangor, where homeless people are three to four times more likely to die prematurely — often from treatable and preventable conditions — than their counterparts with housing, according to a news release from Penobscot Community Health Care.
Many are the target of hate crimes, and others have chronic health issues worsened by exposure to bitter winter weather, the PCHC release pointed out, citing statistics from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
The memorial in Bangor was organized by PCHC in partnership with its Summer Street Community Clinic, Hammond Street Congregational Church, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, Manna Ministries and the Eastern Maine Peace and Justice Center and several other volunteers who provided music, refreshments and other services.
Homeless shelter Executive Director Dennis Marble said Monday that a growing number of individuals and groups in the community have been getting involved in the effort to end homelessness.