Maybe, if you live or work in downtown Portland, you’ve seen her.

Each morning for the past month or so, she’s left the city’s tired old Oxford Street Shelter at 7:30 a.m. sharp, along with the 200 or so other people who find refuge there on any given night.

Five feet tall with snow-white hair, she walks the streets of the peninsula pushing a blue metal shopping cart. It’s loaded down with a large green trash bag containing all her possessions and doubles as her walker.

One sideways glance at Deborah Marvit is all most people might need to peg her as homeless and, as so many of us do, give her a wide berth. It’s what happens to those who live on the street and, day after day, find themselves judged by what they are, not who they are.

That changed Tuesday evening.

“Obviously, I’m a member of the older generation, and I certainly wasn’t brought up to have any expectation in my life of being in the situation where I am now,” Marvit told about 50 city officials, social service providers and local residents packed into the State of Maine Room at City Hall.


That said, she added, “I have a couple of comments …”

Called by the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee, the gathering marked the first in what undoubtedly will be numerous discussions of Portland’s new homeless shelter as it moves from the drawing board to fruition somewhere within city limits.

Debate over its proposed location, once announced, will draw far bigger crowds – from those who don’t want the new shelter hidden away in some industrial area to those who don’t want it anywhere remotely near their back yard.

But for now, the focus is on the draft design by Winton Scott Architects – a 27,400-square-foot, 24-hour, 211-bed facility that is everything the Oxford Street shelter isn’t.

Over more than two hours, speaker after speaker rose to offer their impressions of the blueprint.

Some said the “day area” is a major step up from Oxford Street; others said it’s way too small.


Some lauded the idea of an on-site health clinic; others said it too needs to be expanded.

Some praised the sprawling, single-story layout; others said its large footprint would pose a siting challenge and suggested a second-floor sleeping area.

Then, near the end, Marvit stepped up to the microphone.

As she later explained in a post-meeting interview, she first came to Portland in the summer of 2016, chasing down a truck she’d been renting that had been repossessed with all her worldly possessions inside.

She was between permanent homes in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the time. Upon realizing the truck had been reclaimed because of what she called a miscommunication with the trucking company, she took a bus to Portland and a taxi to Scarborough, money in hand, to work things out.

Or not. She left with only what she could carry and, just like that, found herself at Oxford Street.


This is a woman who traces her ancestry to Mayflower Compact signatories William Bradford and William Brewster, and who was educated at Harvard University and Vassar College before graduating with a degree in art history from Boston University.

A woman who traveled to Europe as a college student in 1950 and, on the transatlantic cruise back home, got a job putting out the ship’s newspaper.

“I was working, as a matter of fact, on the ship’s newspaper when the news came of the Korean War breaking,” she recalled. “I was the one who got that news and wrote it up for the Sea Breeze.”

This is a woman who raised and supported two sons, as a single mother, on her earnings as an artist, a writer and a teacher. Five years ago this Sunday, her 53-year-old elder son was murdered in Baltimore as he left a rehearsal by the choral society in which he sang.

Before her life got derailed, Marvit said, “I actually wanted to go to Baltimore to find out who murdered my son.”

Still homeless after finding her way back to Portsmouth last year, she returned to Portland in August because “I’d established roots here.”


They include the Portland Museum of Art, where she dipped into what little money she had for a “Plus One” membership. It enables her to bring a friend, usually from the shelter, for an afternoon of meandering among the city’s artistic and cultural treasures.

Marvit has a case worker and, like anyone, would much prefer a permanent roof over her head to the laundry room at Oxford Street, where she and 13 other women vie for floor mats each night.

So she lacks the means for her own housing?

“It isn’t lack of means, necessarily,” she replied. “It’s lack of housing.”

She joined Homeless Voices for Justice, which is organized and led by Maine’s homeless on behalf of Maine’s homeless. In fact, she told her audience at City Hall on Tuesday, the group’s first newsletter should hit the streets within the next week or so.

“So, I would suggest that anybody who’s interested make a point of finding out what some of these people are writing about and thinking about,” she said.


Which brings us back to Marvit’s reason for heading to City Hall in the first place. Actually, two reasons.

One was to caution that a new shelter, for all its shiny surfaces, might become a “ghetto” where collective need trumps individual dignity.

“I find that the back stories of these people and their reasons for coming (into the shelter) are as various as the number of people who are there,” she said. “And I think that that needs to be addressed. I think the shelter itself should provide some day areas in which individuals can be themselves, they can have activities which promote their own personal interests, with ongoing encouragement, and which treats them as valued people, just not a member of a homeless entity, which unto itself is subject to a lot of stereotyping.”

Her other message was for those of us whose direct contact with the homeless – if we have any at all – is limited to those oh-so-fleeting sidewalk encounters.

“Whenever you know that somebody is homeless, please do not reject them,” she said. “Try and find out, as you would about a new neighbor, what they’re like as a person, where they come from, what they’re interested in, what they’ve done in the past, what they’re proud of.”

After the meeting, Marvit graciously accepted a packaged salad from Portland Health and Human Services Director Dawn Stiles – it was left over from a bag of takeout for busy officials who’d had no time for dinner.


Outside City Hall a short time later, still holding tight to her makeshift walker, Marvit spoke eloquently about the wonderful immigrant staffers at Oxford Street, about how her $103 monthly check from Social Security morphs automatically into her payment for Medicare Part B, about how she’s been known to sleep outside under a makeshift tent because “I like to be outdoors.”

At her age? (Which, for the record, she asked that I not disclose.)

“Age is a state of mind,” she explained with a smile.

She does not seek our pity. Only our understanding.

“I’m a survivor,” Marvit said proudly. “And I think there’s something about my personality which relishes being a survivor. And not only that, I like the adventure.”

With that, amid the deepening darkness, the woman with the white hair aimed her shopping cart down Cumberland Avenue toward Oxford Street.

She hadn’t yet checked in for the night – and she hoped there would still be room.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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