WATERVILLE — Vaughan Orchard, a well-known homeless man who roamed about the city collecting bottles and cans and handing out food and blankets to other homeless people, died Saturday of an apparent heart attack. He was 57.

Orchard, a tall, lanky man with a shock of gray hair suffered from mental illness and lived two winters in a tent on the bank of the Kennebec River off Front Street, despite often subzero temperature. In October 2017 he was arrested and charged with criminal trespass after a woman reported he was building a small hut near his tent. Pan Am Railways, which owns the property, did not want him there, police said at the time.

“He was a gentle soul and he helped all the other homeless,” Betty Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, said Wednesday upon hearing of Orchard’s death.

For the last several weeks Orchard had been staying with friends in an apartment on Silver Place, according to police Chief Joseph Massey. Emergency workers were called there at 11:40 a.m. Saturday, he said, and there is no indication his death was the result of foul play, as some people have rumored. Massey was not sure of the exact cause of death and said no autopsy was done.

“I don’t know any one specific thing, and it’s quite common with people who have the same sort of lifestyle,” he said. “They’re homeless and they have issues, and obviously it’s common for them to have a variety of health issues that may contribute.”

Heather Parker, a downstairs neighbor of Orchard, was unaware he had died; but she said Wednesday that one of the people he was staying with, whose first name is Megan, told her he had not been feeling well for a few days. On Saturday morning he collapsed and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Megan and Orchard had gone to the store and returned to the apartment when it happened, according to Parker.

“He sat on the couch and started to take off his sweatshirt and he just kind of fell over and they called the ambulance,” Parker said. “They worked on him for, like, 30 minutes. It was a heart attack.”

Parker described Orchard as thoughtful and caring.

“Vaughan was awesome,” she said. “I had packages left out here on my doorstep from Amazon with car parts and I was gone for the day, and he actually picked them up and put them upstairs so nobody would steal them,” she said. “My daughter loved him to pieces. She’s 9. He was such a nice guy. He would help out upstairs. I went up one day and he was doing the dishes.”

Parker said Megan was in Portland on Wednesday because another woman who lived in the apartment was sick and in the hospital there.

Orchard could be seen nearly daily and even in snow pushing a grocery cart throughout the downtown with a cardboard sign attached to it, collecting bottles and cans from trash cans. Sometimes he would yell and people would steer clear of him.

Palmer, the homeless shelter director, befriended Orchard years ago and tried to convince him to live at the shelter, but he preferred living outdoors. Palmer regularly supplied him with baby wipes, toilet paper and other necessities and would give him sleeping bags and other items for those he knew who were living on the riverbank. He was attentive to the needs of others, according to Palmer.

“He’d come and tell us who needed a coat. … He would bring us people he thought would be willing to be housed,” she said.

Palmer said she is sad to know he is gone, but he is in a better place.

“I hate to see anybody die, but he was so tormented by his mental illness,” she said.

Bobbie-Jo Clough, of Waterville, said she and her daughter, Dominique, and son Ashton, met Orchard in 2015 at Head of Falls near the Two Cent Bridge when her daughter was 15 and her son was 10. Orchard had a grocery cart full of bread and was feeding the birds, Clough said.

They gave Orchard all the money they had with them, as they were heading to the store to buy dog food, she said, and they kept tabs on him after that. She was glad her children met him because they learned everyone should be loved and treated equally, she said.

“He was so friendly with us. He was never disrespectful to me or my children,” she said.

Clough said they visited Orchard at his tent on the river and he tried to give them blankets. Whenever anyone gave him money, he would go to The Home Depot to buy a 2-by-4 to add to a growing pile of wood he was using to build his hut, she said.

Another friend, Cathy Cochran, said in an email that she met Orchard when he was walking on her street in Winslow and they became friends. She invited him in for a spaghetti supper and helped him in other ways.

“All he wanted was to know that someone was willing to help him,” Cochran said Wednesday in an email. “He was stronger than most, caring for those who cared for him, happy when someone would just talk. Being homeless was his life and that is all he wanted. That is all he needed. His world was outside, in his head. I got him, his true friends got him and his true family got him, but now the true last homeless man of Waterville is gone. We will miss you, Vaughn. Be happy.”

Massey said he met Orchard 32 years ago, and police have dealt with him many times on various issues. As with other homeless people who have lived in the city a long time, police got to know him well — his history, background, habits, likes and dislikes — which helped when they responded to incidents involving him. Massey said police officers typically could open a conversation with him and find common ground.

“A lot of them live a difficult life and can’t get into the mainstream life,” he said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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