Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Portland Thursday night to honor the 37 homeless people who died this past year.
The observers of the annual vigil walked up the hill from the Preble Street Resource Center to Monument Square, where they read the names of the dead and lit candles.
Elizabeth Szatkowski, a clinical social worker in Portland, was part of the original homeless memorial vigil more than 20 years ago. She says she’s concerned by the upward trend in the numbers.
“Unfortunately, the numbers of names that we read keep going up, and that is unconscionable, at a time when we have more prosperity than we have ever,” she says.
Cheryl Harkins, who was once homeless herself, helped organize the vigil. She says she works closely with the homeless community and personally knows several of those who died this year. One of them is Rodney Jowles.
“He died in a tent fire this spring. He was trying to stay warm and his tent caught on fire and he burned to death. The only thing left was a bicycle,” she says.
The annual vigil takes place on the winter solstice, and Phil Hoose, a musician who has performed at the gathering the past 18 years, says there’s a reason for that.
“The solstice is just the coldest, longest winter day of the year, which shows solidarity with those who have to stay out in weather like this,” he says.
But Hoose says the solstice also symbolizes hope — turning around and heading toward warmth and optimism.