LEWISTON — Walking slowly along a frozen sidewalk as the temperature dipped into the teens, the woman in the parka was stricken by a grim thought.
“Can you imagine it?” she said to the man next to her. “Being forced to stay out in this all night? It would be horrible.”
Horrible, indeed. And that’s exactly what the annual Lewiston-Auburn vigil and walk for the homeless is meant to emphasize.
Starting at about 5 p.m. Thursday, more than four dozen men, women and children began the long, cold walk up Sabattus Street on the longest night of the year.
They did it in remembrance of the homeless who have perished in the past year, but also to raise awareness of those still suffering.
“Yes, it’s cold outside. We talk about the weather all the time as we walk to our warm office buildings or our warm car,” said a woman named Maureen who has been walking for the vigil the past three years. “We don’t tend to remember that there are people outdoors, and who have no place to go. It’s not just that they’re homeless; they’re forgotten.”
Kristine Kittridge began walking for the event four years ago when she first moved to Lewiston. She’s done it every year since.
“It’s the longest night of the year,” she said. “And it’s often the coldest. I think it’s important to honor the homeless that were lost and also to be in solidarity with those who are still fighting.”
The event was hosted by New Beginnings, which serves homeless and runaway youths, and the Lewiston/Auburn Alliance for Services to the Homeless. Starting at 4:30 p.m., people began to congregate in the main hall at Trinity Episcopal Church. A few came alone to quietly honor the dead. Some came in small groups, others brought their children along.
Before they started walking, Erin Reed, executive director of the Trinity Jubilee Center, told them a story.
“When people die at Central Maine Medical Center, they send a card to the family,” Reed said. “If the person has no family, that card comes here.”
A couple of weeks ago, Reed said, she was going through the mail at the center when she came across one of those letters from CMMC. Another homeless person had died.
“It was like being kicked in the gut,” Reed said. “I just sat down in the office and cried.”
That one was particularly painful, Reed said, because she had known this man quite well. Over the summer, he had come to Reed’s office to talk to her about a dispute he was having with another member of center. But instead of yelling and accusations, Reed said, the meeting turned emotional.
“I don’t think I even said anything to him,” Reed recalled. “I just kind of reached out to him and he just fell apart. He start crying. He came into the office and just sat there. He just cried and cried. He was homeless, he had been hurt and people had stolen his stuff. He was just exhausted.”
A few months later, the man was dead. Reed only knew about it because she got that card from CMMC.
“Now, I’m the one sitting in the office chair and crying,” she told the group Thursday night. “For some people who are homeless, we’re kind of all they have for a home base and for a family.”
Although there are no official numbers for how many homeless people have died locally, the people of Trinity named three — two men and a woman — before the start of the walk. For each name read, a solemn bell sounded inside Trinity Church.
“We remember those who have died in the cold,” said the Rev. William Barter, “and who died in the loneliness and darkness of being homeless.”
Then it was time to walk, and those who came to honor the dead went out into the cold without complaint. Most wore thick hats and warm gloves, but a few had failed to prepare. Making the long march toward Main Street, they shivered in the cold, vividly aware of the homeless experience on a nightly basis.
“This is the longest night of homelessness,” said Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings. “People who have no place to stay tonight are going to be out in this cold. And it’s going to be very cold.”
It was 18 degrees in Lewiston on Thursday evening.
There are no hard figures on the number of homeless in the area, although in recent years, it’s been suggested that on any given night, at least 100 people are out on the street in Lewiston-Auburn.
“In Lewiston in particular there are no privately operated homeless shelters,” Bicknell said. “So it’s a real challenge for people to find a place to be.”
Chris Bicknell, far right, executive director of New Beginnings, leads a walking vigil in Lewiston to honor people who died while homeless during the past year and to raise awareness of homelessness. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Erin Reed, executive director of Trinity Jubilee Center, addresses the crowd gathered for the Longest Night of Homelessness vigil at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lewiston on Thursday evening. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)