A Brunswick man was found dead in his sleeping bag by the train tracks on Federal Street on November 23. Russell Williams, 64, was reported missing on November 5.
The death is not considered suspicious, according to Brunswick Police Department (BPD) Commander Mark Waltz, though the official cause of death is not yet available.
Williams was born and raised in Brunswick and had been experiencing homelessness for years. He was a frequent visitor of The Gathering Place, Brunswick’s day shelter. Executive Director Mary Connelly told the Times Record that Williams “could never really quite get on his feet” due to a struggle with mental health.
“This is not someone who was from away,” Connelly said. “This was his home. This community is not somewhere someone should be able to freeze to death. He deserved better. His life mattered.”
Annie Rose ’20, who has volunteered at The Gathering Place since June, said Russell, despite the obstacles he faced, “was always warm and kind and tried to see the good in people.”
As of January 2018, an estimated 2,516 people were experiencing homelessness in Maine on any given day. In Brunswick, Tedford Housing served 86 individuals and 23 families between July 2018 and June 2019, but the organization still had to turn away 251 individuals and 205 families due to lack of space in its two shelters. Williams was not a guest at either of Tedford’s shelters.
Shortly before his death, Williams had received a housing choice voucher that subsidizes rent for affordable housing. He was unable to find housing before the voucher expired after 60 days.
“I’m hopeful that Brunswick will recognize this tragedy for what it is—a man ready to be housed, voucher in hand, but denied a home due to the incredible lack of affordable housing in our area,” said Rose. “I think it’s important for Bowdoin students to recognize how these social problems affect real individuals.”
A lack of affordable housing in Maine means demand is high for housing vouchers, but it also means that recipients of vouchers have difficulty using them before they expire.
Data from the 2018 Picture of Subsidized Households study show that recipients of housing vouchers in Maine had to wait an average of 33 months before receiving one. Daniel Brennan, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, told WGME that there are currently more than 19,000 people on the voucher waiting list.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the shortage of available affordable homes for extremely low-income renters in Maine is upwards of 20,000.