PORTLAND, Maine – Bagpipes and a police car’s flashing blue lights led a somber, candlelit procession from Bayside to Monument Square on Tuesday, during the longest night of the year.

In the square, about 100 friends, family and advocates gathered, remembering the more than 50 homeless people who died in the city since last December. For 27 years, Portlanders have gathered in the square on the solstice, mourning lives cut short.

The life expectancy of someone experiencing homelessness is 28 years shorter than that of a housed person. The average life expectancy of the unhoused in this country is only about 50 years, compared with 78 for Americans with stable housing.

According to Preble Street, a Portland agency providing homeless services, 51 people experiencing homelessness died in the city in the last 12 months. That number is down from 64 the previous year but significantly higher than a decade ago when the number stood at 22.

“The deaths of the 51 people we lost this year are the result of a broken system, and the human toll of allowing these vulnerable neighbors to slip through the cracks is devastating, not only to those of us who knew and loved them, but to our community as a whole,” said Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director.

The youngest person to die was 18 years old while the eldest was 69 years old, according to Swann’s agency. A full 80 percent of those who died this year were younger than 60

One person was a longtime advocate for housing rights. Another was a veteran.

Causes of death included cancer, overdoses, heart disease and chronic medical conditions.

“At the local, state and federal levels, we must come together to provide professionally run and dignified shelters, affordable housing and more housing first programs,” Swann said, “and expanded services for physical and mental health and substance use disorders.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.