BRUNSWICK — Russell Williams was as close to being the mayor of The Gathering Place as a person could get. He was gregarious, charismatic, quick with a joke and always smiling, eager to lend a helping hand whenever possible; the kind of person who didn’t just walk into a room — he made an entrance.

Whenever he set foot in The Gathering Place, Brunswick’s day shelter, everyone noticed. 

Now, more than a week after Williams was found dead in his sleeping bag by the train tracks on Federal Street, his absence is acutely felt by the guests and volunteers who grew to love Williams, leaving many with lingering questions and anger.

“That a kind, dear man could die in this way,” said Sally Hennessey, volunteer coordinator at The Gathering Place. “It’s wrong that this happened.” 

It was not unusual for Williams to slip off the grid for a few days at a time. He could be difficult and belligerent and was, as Executive Director Mary Connolly said, “tortured.” 

The Gathering Place, Brunswick’s day shelter, at 5 Tenney Way, where Russell Williams visited every day before his death.

Williams struggled with alcoholism and had dealings with Brunswick police dating back to 1980, usually for charges related to disorderly conduct, criminal trespass or occasionally, assault. It was, according to Cmdr. Mark Waltz, “mostly just nuisance stuff, he wasn’t really a threat to anyone.” 

After these run-ins he would return to The Gathering Place, smiling as ever, and Connolly would welcome him back, asking where he had been. Invariably, he told her he was on an “involuntary vacation,” she remembered. He was known as a helper, offering to water the plants or take out the recycling. He held doors open for everyone and was known to give his last dollar or last cigarette to someone he thought could use it more. His hugs, according to Connolly, were real hugs, the kind with two hands. 

When Williams was reported missing Nov. 5, friends and family searched his popular haunts around town. They contacted local jails, hospitals, the shelters in Portland. But nobody had seen him. Some hoped he had moved on, and perhaps found housing in Lewiston. 

Then, Nov. 23, someone at the Elks Lodge called to report someone was sleeping on the hillside by the train tracks. Williams, 64, was found dead in his sleeping bag, according to Waltz. His death is not considered suspicious and while an official cause of death will not be available for several more weeks, Connolly said she was told it was likely a combination of a medical issue and the elements. Between Nov. 12 and 20, temperatures in Brunswick were unusually cold, with highs in the 30s and lows in the teens. 

It was the same cold weather that concerned his sister, Lisa Williams. 

“I was going to have him come here with me,” she said Friday. “I could see him sleeping out in the snow.” 

Russell Williams had recently received a housing voucher, but recipients only have 60 days to find housing. Time ran out and he was not able to find a place in time. 

This is not uncommon, and is something volunteer Jeff Stanley said he is seeing more often, but hearing about less. 

“Russell’s story is not singular to him,” he said, but is, as Hennessey put it, “the face of homelessness in Brunswick.”

According to the Maine Point in Time Count, which offers a snapshot of homelessness on one night of the year, there were 1,215 Mainers experiencing homelessness on Jan. 22, 2019; an 8% increase over 2018. The real numbers, though, are thought to be much higher. The count does not include people who are couch surfing or staying with friends but are still homeless, and the data is self-reported. 

A person can become homeless for any number of reasons — trauma, domestic violence, mental health issues, substance abuse, an injury or the loss of a job, among other reasons. With no one reason, there is also no one solution. 

In fiscal year 2019, Brunwick’s Tedford Housing served 86 individuals and 23 families in the adult and family shelters but had to turn away 251 individuals and 205 families due to lack of space. Of those served, 39% of individuals and 88% of families exited to permanent housing. 

Williams was not a guest at either of the Tedford Housing shelters. 

He was trying to turn things around, his sister said, but he was frustrated by the system. It was hard to get an appointment, sometimes agencies would cancel with little to no notice. Hennessey said his food stamps were drastically reduced with no explanation. He was forced to spend long periods on hold with the Department of Human Health and Services. He recently applied for a photo ID to help get a job or somewhere to live. It arrived in the mail at Lisa Williams’ place, but she wasn’t able to find him before he died. It’s the only picture she has of her older brother. 

Many of the details of Russell Williams’ life are still unknown. One of four children, he was born and raised in Brunswick, and aside from a few years in Freeport and a brief time in Lewiston, he lived in town his whole life. He was a veteran and served in the Navy in the 1970s, his sister said. He used to work at Eastland Shoe in Freeport. He liked to fish, she said, would go every day if he could. He liked to quote movies and songs from the 1960s, friends remembered, and had a knack for military history. 

“He was one of the funniest and smartest people I ever knew,” said Jeff Stanley, a Gathering Place volunteer.

Williams was well known throughout town, and according to Connolly, even the people who had him banned from their businesses, who thought he was too disruptive would tell her, “he’s so difficult, but gosh I really like him.” 

He usually wore a black Western-style hat and a leather jacket. He was a small man, but Judy Gray, another volunteer at The Gathering Place, said that despite his stature, he was a “king-sized pain in the ass.”

A person never knew what to expect with Williams, something that could both endear him to and alienate him from others. “He was kind of a story in himself,” one of his friends, Scott Dartz said. 

He struggled with his mental health and “could never really quite get on his feet,” according to Connolly. 

“This is not someone who was from away,” she said. “This was his home. This community is not somewhere someone should be able to freeze to death. He deserved better. … His life mattered.” 

“He should not have been out there,” Katherine Heuer said at The Gathering Place last week.

“You can only help as much as you can help, (but) there has to be something better,” she said. 

Correction, an earlier version of this story misspelled Mary Connolly’s last name. 


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