On the longest night of the year, we remember those who died without homes.
Attending annual Homeless Persons Memorial events certainly elicits great sadness, but also anger. It is hard not to be angry about the ongoing injustice of people living without the safety of a home — without even shelter — when we know how to end homelessness. Housing ends homelessness. When hearing the names listed, the lives lost, one feels the need for urgent change.
But it is important to set aside that frustration and urgency for a few hours on Homeless Persons Memorial Day. It is a night of remembrance to honor the lives that have passed. Not to remember “the homeless,” but rather to honor each person — each with his or her unique life story, talent, challenges, loves, and losses.
A Matter of Dignity
A few days ago, Twitter was abuzz with a story of a person sleeping near a food kitchen who found a bag of money. The “twist” was that he turned that money in to the food kitchen despite his own evident needs.
The story was less surprising to those who have spent time with people experiencing homelessness. As a front-line worker who regularly had to prepare people for a long night outdoors, I have seen great kindness, generosity, and friendship among people living without shelter. I have seen how they helped one another through the nights, shared what little they had, and welcomed strangers into their communities.
We need to better model the dignity and respect people experiencing homelessness show to one another.
They deserve the respect of being remembered and honored as individuals — people who lived full and complicated lives, who were ill-served by systems of care that still have large, gaping holes of injustice.
Honoring Dignity Every Day
As we spend the night honoring those who have passed, we can also take a moment to think of those spending this night without shelter: approximately 193,000 individuals, mostly men, but also single women and children who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness with their parents.
As we reflect on those individuals, we need to ask ourselves tough questions: Why has our society tolerated this for so long? Are we more likely to “other” homeless and unsheltered populations because of the disproportionate representation of African Americans among them? Do we use the visible presence of a disability, mental health issue, or substance use, to help us “explain away” their homelessness? Does the absence of a visible disability lead people to a conclusion that homelessness is simply a choice?
And why has our nation failed to act urgently to solve homelessness?
The Alliance remains committed to resolving these challenges. As a first step, we can honor the lives that have been lost by remembering the dignity and respect that was due to them while they were alive. And we must also afford that dignity and respect to those currently living without shelter or homes. We can feel the urgent need for change to end homelessness now and act upon it.
The staff at the Alliance offers its sincere condolences to all those who have lost friends and loved ones over the last year. Today, and every day, we honor their memories.