LEWISTON — The longest night of the year came on fast Wednesday and the cold came with it.

Just after sundown, dozens of people flanked Main Street in Lewiston, many of them thinking about what it must be like to sleep outside on such nights; what it must be like to be out in the cold with no warm place to retreat to.

That’s the point of it, really. The annual Vigil for the Homeless is meant to remind people that there are those who are fighting the day-to-day battle with homelessness.

“Not enough of the general public know that this is a big issue here in Maine,” Natasha Moore, a caseworker with Common Ties in Lewiston, said. “On any given day, there are 4,411 homeless here. That’s a big number. So we’re out here to support the individuals who are experiencing homelessness, to bring awareness to their cause and to hopefully bring about a better solution for those who are suffering from it.”

This year, instead of gathering at Trinity Church downtown, the group assembled beneath the “Hopeful” sign along Main Street, just short of the Longley Bridge. It’s a more public visible location, but for event organizers, there’s also something apropos about holding the vigil beneath a sign bearing such a message.

“We are here to memorialize all those folks who have passed away on the streets in this past year,” Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings, said, “and to hope, under this hopeful sign, that no one else loses their lives and that our community rises up and provides shelter and housing for all the people who need it.”


Between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., roughly five dozen people stood on the sidewalks on either side of Main Street, holding candles and bearing signs.

“Housing is a human right,” declared one sign.

“In loving memory of those who suffer,” offered another.

Many of those who showed up are already working as hard as they can to help the homeless. In the crowd Wednesday night were volunteers from several groups, including more than a couple from the Pleasant Street Drop-In Center in Auburn. For those people, homelessness is a matter that needs to be addressed every single day, not just on special occasions.

“It’s an enormous issue,” a volunteer named Kitsie said. “And it’s absolutely a communitywide issue, and we need to recognize that each and every one of us has a role to play. Those of us who have the privilege to have shelter and warmth have the responsibility to play a role in making shelter available to every human being.”

Rowan Church, 20, left, and Phoenix Bossie, 19,  hold signs Wednesday in Lewiston at a vigil marking National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. The vigil was held on the winter solstice, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Patty, another volunteer with the Pleasant Street Drop-In Center, describes working with the homeless as a privilege. But like others, she has concerns about the number of people still without shelter as the coldest part of winter comes on.


“When you volunteer,” she said, “you see the day-in, day-out challenges and the grittiness of their lives. You see how winter makes everything just so much harder. It’s overwhelming.”

With winter only just beginning, the estimated number of homeless people in Maine is being reported at its highest point in at least 15 years. The number is approaching 5,000 at last count and that at a time when available housing is likewise at an all-time low. There are shelters, but not nearly enough of them — according to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, 1,074 shelter beds exist in 45 shelters statewide.

By some estimations, there may be 1,000 or more homeless in Lewiston alone on any given day.

For Jeff Ahlberg, who works in the housing department at Common Ties, what we’re seeing is a kind of perfect storm where more people are becoming homeless while the housing crisis only worsens. And in places like Lewiston, grim evidence of the crisis is all over the place.

While most people are preparing for big Christmas feasts in their warm homes, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline mused, it’s important to remember the people who don’t have even the basic essentials to keep themselves and their families safe and warm. Hoping for the best, the mayor said, isn’t enough.

“We need solutions, not just thoughts and prayers to address the challenges in our community,” Sheline said. “And it begins with connecting our unhoused to resources and making housing affordable. We need to work together to find solutions for our homeless population. We need to put away divisive politics and work together to help the homeless in our city.”


For some, there have been signs of hope.

Greg Whitney, co-chairman of the Pleasant Street Drop-In Center, said the public has been generous with donations, enough so the center is able to serve 40 to 50 guests at a time when they drop in for breakfast and lunch every Sunday. On Wednesdays, they have a program where the homeless can come in and speak with service providers, housing coordinators or financial advisers as they try to navigate their way off the streets.

The group is able to provide clothing and toiletries and, with the help of a recent grant, they can provide winter tents and sleeping bags for those who require them, Whitney said. The center next plans to install showers, washers and dryers to help the homeless.

A lot of this, Whitney said, is only possible as a result of rising awareness within the community of the homelessness crisis.

“It’s been a huge, huge success,” he said. “We’ve had great support in the community — a lot donations, particularly of clothes and food. It’s just really heartwarming doing this.”

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