Courtesy of INSP News Service www.INSP.ngo / Street Sense
By Ethan Cohen, One Step Away; Colleen Cosgriff, Dottie Kramer and Reginald Black, Street Sense; Alex Ramirez, Spare Change News
Photo: Alena Kuzub
Just days before Christmas, thousands of people across the U.S. gathered to remember the homeless and formerly-homeless people who died in 2015. INSP members were on the ground to cover these moving memorials and amplify their message that no one should have to live or die homeless.
Since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless has encouraged communities to host public events on or near 21 December – the longest night of the year – to mark National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day.
Every community does so in its own way. Some hold vigils, some organize candle-lit processions, and others even put on open mic performances of stories, poetry and songs.
Each memorial event shares a common sentiment, which is to honor and celebrate lives lost, and to call for an end to homelessness.
It is a particularly poignant and moving time for street paper staff and homeless or formerly homeless street paper vendors, many of whom attended memorial services and vigils across the U.S.
The street paper Denver Voice reported 132 dead in Denver, Colorado – with an additional 30 names memorialized that had not been recognized at the 2014 service. One Step Away reported 168 lives lost while homeless in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Street Sense reported 42 dead in Washington, D.C. – with an additional 11 in neighboring Northern Virginia. Real Change reported 60 dead in Seattle, Washington. The Journey reported 55 dead in Fort Worth, Texas.
At Philadelphia’s memorial, held on 17 December, volunteers from the community read aloud the names of those who had passed away, while audience members stood up, holding signs bearing the names of the deceased.
“I think the best way to honor those who we have lost is to take the dignity that we afford the people who passed this year tonight and apply that dignity to a lot of the folks who are still out there and are overlooked,” said Patrick McNeil, a case manager in Philadelphia.
One Step Away vendor Jeff echoed that sentiment. “The best way to honor someone who has passed from homelessness is to see another person who is in need and help them live. In small ways or large ways, help someone else live,” he said.
In Boston, the memorial service held on December 21 marked the first time in 26 years that last names were included, rather than simply a last initial.
A flute solo played while a list of all the full names available was read aloud. A candle was lit for each one, covering the small altar of Church on the Hill in light.
The same names were labelled on packaged blankets piled beneath the altar and lined up along the pews. There were 125 names in total.
Diamond O’Connell, who was homeless for 20 years, knew 75 of those people – 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.” O’Connell remembers huddling out in the streets for warmth, sharing meals, laughing, and getting hot chocolate with many of them.
After the service, she pointed to a small vial on her necklace in which she carries some of Latinville’s ashes. “Every night she can have a home,” she says.
O’Connell gained housing last year, but still has friends on the streets. “75 people… and only one lives… What’s wrong? Who failed them? Every day I cry, because they deserved to have a warm home like I do,” she added.
“If it wasn’t for each and every one of my friends whose names are on the blankets, I wouldn’t be where I am today. If they didn’t help me, hold me, and love me. And I’m never gonna forget ’em.”
In the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., a vigil began at Luther Place Memorial Church to honor 42 men and women who passed away in 2015. Each person’s name had been written on posters carried by participants, along with electric candles.
Street Sense vendor Ken Martin gave his first-hand account of homelessness. Martin suffered two heart attacks in one week. He was returned to the street immediately after his first heart surgery. “I could have been number 56,” Martin said, referencing the 55 people who were honored at the 2014 vigil.
He went on to reminisce about how he watched a homeless woman seize up, after her complaints of headaches and blurred vision. He lamented the fact that he did not know the woman’s fate and if she was one those they were commemorating that night.
“If I break the law, I am guaranteed a safe place to lay my head, a warm place to sleep, and three meals a day, but when someone does everything right, they get nothing,” said Street Sense’s Executive Director, Brian Carome.
He talked about remembering Roberta Bear, a Street Sense vendor who had experienced homelessness, but died housed in 2015. He expressed frustration with attending the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day each year; an event he believes has been needed for “far too long”.
After the vigil, organized by the People for Fairness Coalition, homeless advocates marched to Freedom Plaza and City Hall, where overnight protests took place. They called on better provisions for housing as a way to save lives and emphasized the message that “housing is a human right.”
“In a city that has declared itself to be a ‘human rights city,’ there are still unfortunate lost lives of people that are facing or currently experiencing housing instability,” vendor Reginald Black later wrote in a report for Street Sense.
“The deaths of 42 people in the District of Columbia that have died without the dignity of a home sends a loud message to the community at large. The challenge is to produce housing in the community that those who are living in poverty can access, barrier-free.
“Washington is a changing city and nights like this remind us that there are less fortunate people out there, as well as people who care.”
Another Street Sense vendor, Angie Whitehurst, read an original poem ‘Wake up Dead’ at their open mic event. Her poem expressed the feelings of hopelessness and abandonment she faced when she was homeless:
“Woke up dead, from exposure and death/Cold and ill from no house-a home or a place to heal./The cost too high for my town to meet/Now, I am not here for you to touch and see.”
As is tradition, most services ended with a call to end homelessness – one that is simple and sobering:
“Homelessness is an intolerable condition. It is degrading to persons who experience homelessness and a disgrace that our society permits homelessness.
“No person should have to live or die homeless.”
INSP street papers are one of many organizations working to change this injustice by helping homeless and formerly homeless people help lift themselves out of poverty by offering meaningful employment and support. You can find out more about the work they do at www.INSP.ngo.