Candles flicker in Portland's Monument Square on Dec. 21, 2016 during a vigil in memory of 32 people from the city's homeless community who died that year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — At least 64 people have died this year while experiencing homelessness in Portland through Dec. 20.

That figure is the highest on record and more than 60 percent higher than totals for each of the past five years, according to data released Sunday by Preble Street, a nonprofit social services agency that provides shelter and resources to those in need of housing.

The agency found that between 34 and 43 people died each year from 2015 to 2019.

The stark increase in deaths on Portland’s streets comes as the city struggles to find ways to address a crisis of homelessness in the area exacerbated by the pandemic, which has required city shelters to reduce capacity during the pandemic. Financial insecurities have stripped resources from those who struggle with food insecurity, substance-use disorder and mental health issues.

The losses have been more pronounced this month, according to advocates who work with people experiencing homelessness.

The fatalities include at least two people who froze to death sleeping outside on city streets.

Volunteers with the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, a direct aid and advocacy group of housed and unhoused volunteers, say those occurred during last week’s Nor’easter. The tally also includes eight veterans, including one who died last week.

Two people who had been sleeping in a tent off Forest Avenue have not been located since Thursday’s snowstorm, according to volunteers.

The city “does not have any record of two people dying outside because of the elements,” according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. 

Police reported 17 deaths in 2020 among people who “appear to be homeless,” according to spokesperson Robert Martin. But the organizations use different criteria. Andrew Bove, director of Preble Street’s Street Outreach Collaborative, said that the agency’s tally includes individuals who have struggled with homelessness over the past year, and includes some with underlying conditions as their official cause of death. 

“We’re certainly not inflating the numbers,” Bove said.

Preble Street’s data was released in observance of Preble Street’s annual vigil remembering those who died while experiencing homelessness in Portland, The vigil will be marked virtually on Monday this year to observe pandemic safety protocols.

The People’s Housing Coalition also plans to host a socially distanced vigil in Monument Square at 4 p.m. on Monday to give those who lack access to the internet a space to grieve, said Kate Bispham, a PHC volunteer.

The People’s Housing Coalition has linked to fundraisers for the victim’s families on its page.

Portland capped occupants at its Oxford Street Shelter to 75 when the pandemic began in the spring and operated a temporary emergency homeless shelter at the Portland Expo. Other plans to add beds for those in need have fallen through.

Portland is housing roughly 375 people in area hotels, but officials say that practice is unsustainable.

Bispham is disheartened by the deaths and believes they could have been prevented by greater access to shelters. Bispham, who is housed, said the most urgent short-term need for people experiencing homelessness is “shelter of any kind.” She and others have advocated for the city’s planning board to approve a long-delayed proposal by Preble Street to renovate its resource center building at 5 Portland St. into a 40-bed shelter during the pandemic.

“These are not even the coldest temperatures that people are going to experience this winter,” she said.

Kristen Dow, the city’s health and human services director, said in November that “there may be people who for whatever reason are resistant to certain types of shelter.”

As of November, 88 people were being barred from the Oxford Street Shelter and other city shelters for disciplinary reasons.

Preble Street officials have said its proposal for an emergency shelter would be geared toward those who cannot access city shelters.

Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, said the health implications of people experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness are devastating.

“As a community, we cannot continue to let our most vulnerable neighbors slip through the cracks,” Swann said.