All photos: Alena Kuzub
A flute solos while a list of names is read from a podium, a candle lit for each one, covering the small altar of Church on the Hill in light. The same names can be found on the packaged blankets piled beneath the altar and lined up along the pews. Names like Juan Torres, Jacquelyn O’Neil, Arthur Cole, Risa Latinville. And a lack of names: Jane Doe, John Doe. One hundred twenty five names in total—all homeless people who died in the last year. It’s Monday, December 21, and Boston is observing a Homeless Memorial Service, one of many services that occurred around the country from the 19th to the 21st. As the flier outside the church says, it’s also the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.
A choir in red and yellow sings hymns, and religious leaders of multiple faiths lead the congregation in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist prayers. The service is somber, respectful, but there’s a political charge in the air, with leaders calling for action, for the city and state to do more, for the community and individuals to step up to the task.
“I’m convinced homelessness will continue to be a problem until we move beyond the idea of providers and recipients towards realizing we are all agents of change for a better tomorrow,” said Reverend John Odams of Pilgrim Church.
“More than any of our genetics, zip code still remains the biggest predictor of premature death,” said Commonwealth Commissioner of Public Health Monica Bharel. “Place matters. Having a safe, warm and consistent place to call home matters. To me, the biggest public health risk today is public health disparity.” Bharel herself recognized some names read off today from her time with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless.
Diamond O’Connell, formerly homeless for 20 years, knew 75 of the 125 people memorialized—including her best friend, Risa Latinville. “[She was] fun-loving, wild. Everyone mentioned tonight I shared a part of my life with… we ended calling each other brother and sister.” She remembers huddling out in the streets for warmth, sharing meals, laughing, getting hot chocolate, with many of them.
After the service, O’Connell told Spare Change News she carries some ofLatinville’s ashes in a small vial on a necklace—“Every night she can have a home,” she says.
O’Connell gained housing last year, but still has friends on the streets. She now volunteers and runs an outreach program called Project Love with her wife. “Seventy-five people… and only one lives,” says O’Connell. “What’s wrong? Who failed them? Everyday I cry, because they deserved to have a warm home like I do.” O’Connell points to failures in the system that makes the housing process slow, and the closure of Long Island, which housed the city’s largest shelter and many treatment programs.
“Homeless just means ‘I don’t have a home,’” says O’Connell, who wants people to remember the homeless are people, who have names.
Speaking of names, Monday’s service marked the first time in 26 years that last names were included, rather than simply a last initial.
“At first we thought it was a privacy [concern],” says Michael Bancewicz, who organized the service with Church on the Hill’s Interfaith Homeless Memorial Committee. “But we want to acknowledge who they are—not just ‘John C.’”
Bancewicz adds that most names come from the Greater Boston area, but some were received from as far as Worcester, meaning statewide more than 125 homeless individuals have passed this year (Boston has the largest homeless population, so the number might not be significantly larger). Some of the names are people who died in hospice or in the care of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless or other health services.
A more politically bent vigil was held after the rally, with advocates calling for improved shelter conditions, especially with winter overflow an imminent development.
But in the end, even with political and activist undertones of the day, the underlying message is one of love and community.
“If it wasn’t for each and everyone of my friends whose names are on the blankets, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says O’Connell. “If they didn’t help me, hold me, and love me. And I’m never gonna forget ‘em.”