Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bloggers Unite: National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day

Bloggers Unite:

Today is National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day

December 21st marks the winter solstice, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. Each year since 1990, this day has also been designated National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness and to remember our homeless friends and neighbors who have died the previous year.

Here in Buffalo, New York, the inclement weather is a problem. Those who sleep outdoors on the ground or in a sleeping bag, tent, or improvised shelter such as a large cardboard box, are in extreme danger from snow, sleet and below freezing temperatures. There are many reports of loss of toes, fingers, or a nose from frostbite, and even death during the winter months.

I live in the inner city and in my daily activities I come in contact with many homeless people. Many of the long time homeless are suffering from drug or alcohol addictions, chronic illnesses or mental illness.

Not all homeless people look like the men pictured here.

There are the newly homeless, those who have recently lost their homes and/or their employment that now find themselves living on the streets.

Each homeless person has a story, and most of their stories are more similar to the stories of those with homes than they are different.

Today I am thinking of a gentleman named Stan. I first met him two years ago when I was serving a hot meal outdoors to homeless and low-income people. He also came to a weekly food pantry that I volunteer at. He was awkward in his social skills but he was always polite – he rarely smiled. Stan is in his forties and is a loner. He walks stiffly upright with a military bearing and always carries two large shopping size bags, equally balanced, one in each hand. He told me that he had no family.

He lived in a room in a local boarding house and like so many others he planned his daily schedule by which soup kitchen was open and what times the meals were served.

In the spring Stan told me that he had lost his room because he couldn’t keep up the payments. He stopped coming to the food pantry (he no longer had a kitchen area to cook food). During the next few months I would see him walking around the neighborhood and he started sleeping overnight at a bus stop that was one street over from my house. When I drove home late at night I could see him sleeping on the wooden bench. I was concerned and prayed that he would come to no harm.

We are now in freezing temperatures and I haven’t seen Stan in a few months. I don’t know a lot about him but I do know that he was a decent human being and I enjoyed chatting with him. I miss seeing him and I still pray for his safety.

As I reflect for a moment about the kind of sad, desolate deaths we have seen here in the recent past. I recall that demolition crews found three frozen homeless men at different dates and locations, inside vacant houses in the city. Just this week a man was killed in a fire in an abandoned house. Last year a man was found frozen to death in a doorway downtown. As a small crowd gathered around his lifeless body many in the community recognized him, knew him by sight, but had never taken the time to ask him his name. No one came to identify him.

How many have died known only as John or Jane Doe?

One, whose name was known, James, 46, was found on a downtown sidewalk. He had been severely beaten and died a few hours later. The body of Clarence, 32, turned up inside an abandoned house.

Many homeless people are ‘invisible’ to local residents, workers or shoppers who pass them by without giving them a second glance.

To some extent there is a sense of camaraderie in the culture of the streets. Many of the homeless acknowledge each other but it is an unwritten rule, don’t ask too many questions of the other person. They will tell you just what they want you to know. No more, no less.

This city does have a Mission, the Salvation Army and homeless shelters. Emergency cold-weather shelters opened by churches or community agencies, which may consist of cots in a heated warehouse, or temporary Christmas Shelters. There are some homeless who choose to stay outside in the freezing weather.

Statistics tell us that the average age of death of a homeless person is about 50 years.

When people die in these desolate ways, what does it say about us as a community? How much should we care?

Perhaps if more of us took the time to learn their names and listen to their stories, we could work together to end homelessness in our community.

To those, named and unnamed, homeless who died on the streets of this country this year
- may their deaths not be in vain.

We will remember them today.

May they rest in peace.


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