National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day: A Service Provider in Mourning

December is usually a time for holiday gatherings, last minute gift shopping, and lots of delicious comfort food. In our field, December also marks a somber occasion: the annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, which is a time to mourn our unhoused neighbors who lost their lives this year and in previous ones.

When I worked as a Rapid Re-Housing case manager and program administrator, I feared December 21. Not only was it the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, but it was also the day when I knew I would need a box of tissues.

The Ceremony

At The Haven in Charlottesville, VA we would gather for an intimate ceremony in our beautiful sanctuary. Our building was a former church, so the memorial always felt formal. We invited community members, agency partners, current and former clients, family members of those who passed away and whoever else wanted to join us. I would sit in one of the pews with a small group of co-workers or other guests, or sometimes by myself depending on my ability to socialize. Our executive director at the time would ask some of us to participate. I volunteered a couple of times. My fear of public speaking often gave way to tears. We would start off with one of my co-workers beautifully playing the piano to a tune of solemn introspection. Our executive director at the time would then remind us of why we were here: of the 552,830 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, not all of them make it. The hope is that they die with dignity by being housed, but sadly that isn’t a reality for many. Their lives are just as important as ours. The only difference between them and us is that we are housed, and they aren’t. We can’t forget their impact on our lives and that of our community.

The List

“Andrew X, Bernice R, Jefferson S.”

Now it was time for the calling of the names, the toughest part of the day. This is when I started hearing sniffles and sighs. This is when I could no longer see out my watery eyes. As my co-workers would read the names of those who died previously and that year, I couldn’t help but remember their charismatic personalities, smiles, laughter, moments of anger, giving nature and care for others despite being in a horrible situation themselves. I often couldn’t help myself and glance over at their sibling, spouse, or child who misses them terribly when no words can console their loss. I would think to myself what I could have done differently. Could I have done something to get my client housed faster or keep them alive longer?

The Guilt

My deep guilt would distract me from the truth: homelessness bears a huge toll on the body and mind. It ages someone 25 years sooner than normal. I would get clients who we knew were at the end of life, like those who scored a 13-17 on the VI-SPDAT who were the most likely to die unhoused. It was my job to make them as comfortable as possible by getting them housed before they died.

I would often call our Rapid Re-Housing program “Housing Hospice.” Most of the time I succeeded, but sometimes it didn’t work out. This is when I blamed myself. I know that several of you reading this blog can relate. Please know that you work tirelessly every day to meet the needs of your clients; you are life savers. Sometimes things go awry, and you find yourself unable to house a highly vulnerable client. Don’t blame yourself. You did all you could do. It is easier said than done. I know, I still struggled after being in the homeless response field for eight years.

The Comradery

As the ceremony ended, we were asked to provide words of hope and encouragement. Grieving family members would usually stand up and thank us employees for all that we did for their loved one. Friends and clients would also praise our work and provide hope that everyone will get housed one day, that because we existed there was hope for a better future. Those kind words lifted my spirits and shook me out of my shame. As we exited the sanctuary while more melancholy music played in the background, attendees embraced one another for comfort and to show our gratitude toward each other. We universally understood in that moment how we felt.

The Memories

It is with a heavy heart that I write this blog post. As each year the list of names grows, there is an ever-increasing urgency to act. In fact, as you read this blog, someone will be added to a list that should not have to exist.

To all the family members, friends, and service providers of those who perished, your support and love made all the difference.

To all our unhoused neighbors who are no longer with us, you will always be in our hearts and minds. You will NEVER be forgotten.