Christmastime is supposed to bring out the best, most caring side of ourselves. An event this week, however, pointed out just how easily it is to ignore the suffering of our neighbors.

People gathered Tuesday night in Portland’s Monument Square to remember the 51 members of the local homeless population who died in the last year.

Held annually on the longest night of the year, similar to other events held around the state and country, the vigil is an accounting of the people we’ve lost from our communities as a result of our failure to address the very solvable problem of homelessness. We have the tools the prevent a lot of those early deaths — we just have to collectively decide to use them.

And it’s not just about saving those lives, of course. It’s about improving them — giving people the services they need and the access to housing they deserve so that they can live stable, productive, healthy lives, and in many cases have those lives for their children.

People experiencing homeless often are also dealing with health problems and substance use disorder. They must have care available in order to stabilize their lives. We can, as a society and as individual communities, decide to make these services available, and we should.

But the problem of homelessness starts with housing. “Housing first” initiatives around the state have done well, giving people the certainty and stability of housing first, then making sure they have access to the services they need. We have to do more of it.

We also have to prevent homelessness where we can. Falling into homelessness is traumatic, and the longer one is homeless, the more difficulty they have pulling things back together.

That’s just one of the reasons Maine needs more affordable housing. Too many people are one crisis away from missing rent and being put on the street, a problem stemming from not only stagnant wages for many low-income Mainers but also rising rental costs caused by a lack of housing.

And don’t think it’s just Portland that has these problems. All over the state the housing crisis is causing homelessness.

Weekly, sometimes daily, I’m in contact with individuals, many of them are seniors, who are experiencing homelessness, sleeping outside in tents, cars, on sidewalks, on benches,” Santa Havener, director of a warming center and clothing pantry in Augusta, wrote in a letter to city councilors supporting an affordable housing project. “The current housing crisis is turning into a public health and safety issue.”

Augusta councilors supported the project, and other communities should develop their own.

In the legislative session that starts next month, lawmakers will consider statewide rules that would enable denser development and the building of more apartment units in every community in the state. They are desperately needed in order to make developing affordable housing more attractive to developers, and to allow individuals to expand their housing where appropriate.

These rules will no doubt face opposition centered on maintaining local control over such matters. That excuse is just no good. Every community has a role to play in making housing more affordable.

More than that, each of us should be able to lay down at night in a safe, stable home. We have a chance to make it so, if only we choose to.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.