In Memoriam: A Reflection on Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

I met Evie as a Jesuit Volunteer in Seattle while working at the local street paper, Real Change News. When I learned that she’d died, it had been a few years since I’d lived in Seattle; my regular contact with Real Change vendors had grown increasingly less frequent. There had been other vendor deaths while I was at Real Change, and in the years that followed: small pangs of grief that resurfaced from time to time as I remembered the injustice of it all.

But Evie’s death in 2020 hit me particularly hard. I cried, more than I thought I would. I hadn’t seen her for years, so this sudden flood of emotion surprised me. I’d heard that she was back in an encampment; she was robbed, beaten, and left for dead.

I got to know Evie as she spent more and more time at Real Change. She became part of the Vendor Advisory Board, later won Vendor of the Year, and was hired as a staff member. She was the type of person who you could exchange one glance with and she’d read your mind. She was kind, loyal, and knowledgeable; she was willing to share her lived experience to help staff understand what it was like to be homeless. She was real and honest, quick-witted and smart. She spoke her mind when she knew it would count. She made me laugh, but more importantly, she made me think. And the world is worse without her.

The Meaning of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

Every December, communities across the country take time to remember people like Evie who died while experiencing homelessness, holding vigils for Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Taking place annually on December 21 – the longest night of the year – these vigils serve as a tragic reminder that homelessness is a matter of life or death.

For homeless service providers and those with lived experience, Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is a moment to recognize the collective grief we experience: a mourning that is often overshadowed at other points throughout the year by the urgent nature of this work. Many of us have had the experience of arriving at work and hearing that a client or friend was found dead. Grief is innately personal, but for those in the homelessness field, it is inherently communal.

Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day allows family, friends, and community members, too, to gather and grieve our loved ones who shouldn’t have had to die while experiencing homelessness. The public often sees homelessness in numbers and headlines. But I, and so many others in this field, see homelessness in faces and names and stories. And when you put a face and a name and a story to every single number, this crisis becomes all the more compelling to solve once and for all.

  • I remember Sharon, who (without fail) responded to a question about how she was doing with “blessed and well, blessed and we-e-e-eeeell!” She wanted to start a homelessness organization herself, called the Greatest Love Homeless Ministry. It was a glimmer of a nonprofit that died with her.
  • I remember guitar-playing Scott, adorned in buttons laden with peace slogans, who I visited in the hospital. He told me stories about his family and his son. He was relentlessly optimistic, even when I wasn’t.
  • I remember Darcie and Daniel – their deep love for each other, despite all of the struggle it entailed. They were both fiercely loyal to each other, and to their street family.
  • I remember Dani, whose beaded rainbow bracelet I complimented once. She immediately took it off her wrist and put it on my own, despite my protests. I wore it every day until the elastic broke, determined to remember her by her unhesitating kindness.

Remembering Those We’ve Lost

Those are but a few of the people I grew close to in Seattle who have since passed away. And there are more, still, who should be with us in cities across the country.

I think of the first memorial I attended at Covenant House Pennsylvania, where I volunteered weekly for three years in college, lighting candles for youth who had died on the streets.

I think of the “good morning man,” Larry, who posted up near the Alliance’s office in D.C. and had experienced homelessness.

I think of Jordan Neely, whose senseless murder in New York City magnified on a national scale the lethality of experiencing homelessness.

And, still, I think of others:

People in Los Angeles who died at the hands of a serial killer.
People in Las Vegas, killed for the mere fact of living in an encampment.
People living in encampments, killed by wayward vehicles straying off the roadway.
People who have died because of extreme heat or extreme cold.

It is the memory of all of these people, near and far, that I hold close– not just on Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, but every day. Each time I pass someone unsheltered, each time I see someone flying a sign on a street corner, I know that there are many who know that person and their story, even if I am not one of them.

Without Homes, But Not Without Community

People experiencing homelessness are part of the fabric of rich, vibrant communities – whether we are aware of that fact or not. On this Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, I think of all the people who should still be with us. I am filled with a poignant, indignant anger that we should have to hold this vigil annually at all.

We shouldn’t have to light candles to remember people who died by something entirely preventable: homelessness. We should be putting people in housing, not letting them die on the streets. And we should be telling people how much we love them before we have to write their obituaries.

Evie had a family, and many people who loved her.

So did Jordan, and Larry, and many more.

And until the day comes where no more people die while homeless, there will tragically be more names to read in a year’s time.

In a poem Evie published in 2019, she wrote: “Gone is the subservient for eternity / I stand tall with undiminished dignity / And I shout this all in the name of equality / I AM WOMAN!”

May we all remember the undiminished dignity of those who have died while unsheltered this Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.