Brunswick vigil brings homelessness to light

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BRUNSWICK — In freezing temperatures on the winter solstice, a group of residents gathered with candles on Pleasant Street to remember the homeless Brunswick people who died this year.

The candlelight vigil was part of a larger memorial service for the homeless organized by Tedford Housing, which runs two shelters in Brunswick. Before the vigil, attendees read poems and said prayers during a short indoor service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

One man played an acoustic version of Bing Crosby’s song, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” which chronicles one person’s journey to becoming homeless.

During the Dec. 21 vigil, the names of four deceased people were read aloud: Alvin Chandler, Deb Collins, Kayla Seigars and Michael Washburn.

Craig Phillips, Tedford executive director, said the memorial service on the longest night of the year has been held for several years, and its venue often rotates between several churches.

Tedford runs an adult shelter and a family shelter, both in Brunswick, but also has supported affordable housing for those who qualify in Brunswick, Bath, Lewiston, Auburn and Augusta. 

The organization is also planning a new building called The Center at Tedford Place, which will act as both a shelter and a resource center. According to the organization’s website, Tedford can only accommodate 20 percent of those who request help; the new building will allow it to expand its reach.

Phillips said he thinks many residents of small towns fail to understand homelessness is not strictly a big-city problem. 

“Our experience is, people in these smaller towns just don’t recognize that there are neighbors and friends of family who are homeless,” he said.

Jennifer Iacovelli, Tedford development director, echoed that, saying the problem in towns like Brunswick is “not as visible” as it is in cities like Portland.

With approximately 15 percent of Tedford’s operating budget coming from private donations, Phillips said the Brunswick community has nonetheless been extremely generous and crucial to the organization’s success.

He added people will often come into the shelter and ask to sponsor a family or find out what they can do to help.

“I say it fairly often, but you probably can’t say it enough: most every sector of the community is somehow involved in the Tedford mission,” Phillips said. 

Iacovelli said because homelessness is a complicated problem, the needs of the shelters are always changing. A wish list is posted on the Tedford website, which Iacovelli updates periodically, but she said a helpful thing people can do is contact her directly and ask what is needed.

Some months, needs are for simple items like gas cards to help clients get to job interviews, she said. Cleaning supplies are also often necessary, and the shelter regularly provides caseworkers with small amounts of money for fees related to things like housing applications.

She added that when Tedford residents get jobs, the offers often come with expenses other people might not consider, such as steel-toed work boots, which the shelter will also pay for. 

“Homelessness is very complex, so it’s not so easy to go out and find a job or a house or a place to rent,” Iacovelli said. “Finding affordable housing is very difficult, or if you find a job and you need health care, but you don’t have a paycheck yet.”

Phillips said homelessness is also often spurred by a traumatic life event, such as losing one’s job or becoming an addict. Only about 10 percent of those Tedford serves have a “repeated episode” of homelessness after leaving the shelter.

He added he thinks the annual memorial service is one way to help the community better understand the issue. Another big way people can help is by not being judgmental.

“There are people downtown here who aren’t quite familiar with the people we serve, and aren’t quite sure what to do or how to approach (them),” Phillips said. “So it’s good to help the community understand people are homeless, but that’s not their identity.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Brunswick residents gather at a candlelight vigil outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Pleasant Street, part of Tedford Housing’s annual homeless memorial service on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year.

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