Photo of a group of people walking a t night, holding a banner that says "People for Fairness" linked
credit: Marcus Dantley

Thursday afternoon’s rainfall was the first time the Homeless Memorial faced inclement weather since it first started six years ago.

Members of the homeless community, the People For Fairness Coalition led a march from an opening service at Luther Place Memorial Church to Freedom Plaza, where a tent set to host a community dinner would double as a shelter for the night.

[Read more: More than 100 gather to honor those who died on the streets of D.C.]

All of this was done to honor the 54 people known to have died while experiencing homelessness this year. This is a slight increase from last year when 45 people were reported to have died. Members of the community submit these individuals names every year and are aware of their uncertainty. They list Jane and John Doe to account for people not known or counted.

Eric Sheptock and Sheila White sing at the Homeless Persons Memorial Day vigil tent. Photo by Christian Zapata

Findings from a 2018 report by the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner showed that in four of the last five years, the number of homeless deaths reported at these vigils was undercounted. In 2016, the District of Columbia mourned 48 individuals when the medical examiner documented 76 deaths from the homeless community. 

Throughout the night, community leaders emphasized the importance of affordable housing in helping alleviate homelessness and premature death. They asked Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council to invest $35.5 million in housing for 1,140 individuals and 117 families by 2020, according to a press release. They also asked for protection against discrimination for people experiencing housing by calling for the reintroduction of the Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment of 2017, which was never given a hearing by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

[Read more: A notice of intent to act on the bill was filed on July 21, 2017]

Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau and David Grosso attended the opening service and left shortly before the march began. Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign manager of Miriam’s Kitchen said he was not expecting Nadeau and Grosso to make an appearance but was glad they showed up for their second year in a row. It is a testament to why the group considers them their “greatest champions on the D.C. Council” as they push for more investment toward ending homelessness.

The procession was flanked on both sides by an escort of cars from the Metropolitan Police Department, and marchers could be heard shouting slogans as call-and-response phrases.

“Housing is a human right! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

As the group departed from the church, Marcie Bernbaum, a member of People For Fairness Coalition, walks alongside her granddaughter. This is her fifth year attending the vigil, she has seen it evolve from a standalone outside meeting to an overnight procession with a vigil and candlelight procession.

The boisterous crowd, undeterred by the rain, made its way to Freedom Plaza and then into a white tent that had been erected for the vigil. Inside, event organizers had set up tables and chairs and prepared trays full or warm food and drink.

Rabinowitz said this year’s vigil had an incredible turnout matched by incredible energy. The weather, which seemed like it was going to be an issue, spoke more to the everyday conditions people experiencing homelessness face, he said.

“I think people realize folks experiencing homelessness have to deal with the rain, snow, heat and cold, so we’re not going to let a little bit of rain keep us out, keep us from making noise and keep us from reminding our elected officials that it’s unacceptable when 54 people die without housing in the District,” Rabinowitz said.

At the back of the room, a makeshift altar had been erected with electric candles and signs with the names of those who had died laid across a tablecloth with the PFFC logo.

As attendees settled in and filled their bellies, small groups approached the open mic, singing, talking, or laughing informally.

One man at the vigil, Jim, said he became homeless after spending 4.5 years in solitary confinement. Once a certified mental health specialist, he found himself struggling to get back on his feet. Even staying alive while homeless required a stroke of good fortune. Jim related how he almost died once, near the Stadium-Armory Metro station. Only timely medical care at George Washington University Hospital saved his life.

David, who was recently housed by Miriam’s Kitchen after living in homelessness between the ages of 15 and 34, echoed Jim’s sentiments: “[Housing] helped keep me alive.” It also kept him safe and allowed him to keep his possessions securely in one place. He said this year’s vigil was his first and that “It’s a good feeling to give back.” He planned to stay in the tent at Freedom Plaza overnight and then attend the advocacy trip in the morning.

Another man, John, described sleeping in a church building and finding himself locked in the kitchen for the night. The irony was striking, as he had spent years during the Nixon and Ford administrations working in the White House kitchens, first as a dishwasher and, eventually, as an assistant chef. After that, he said, he spent thirty years as chef at the Capitol.

Photo of two women, each using an umbrella, and carrying a sign to represent one of the people who died while homeless.

People in the candlelight procession carried signs to represent each person being remembered that night. Photo by Christian Zapata

“People have to fight for what they want,” John said, reflecting on both his own life and the negative influence he feels shelters can have, as compared to permanent housing. John said he has been involved in homeless activism for at least ten years, having attended the first Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting and being a longtime member of PFFC. Nevertheless, he explained why he wasn’t sure progress had been made: “Four years ago, Columbia Heights was a poor man’s neighborhood.” Despite some legislative progress in terms of homeless services, gentrification continues in D.C.

As the night wound down, Rabinowitz said the overnight crew is typically a mix of people experiencing homelessness, activists and community members, and while he usually isn’t awake for it, he has heard of “pretty incredible” conversations.

After the overnight portion, attendees will wake at around 8 a.m., for breakfast, continue with advocacy training and take their demands into the Wilson Building — directly across the street from Freedom Plaza.

“The larger goal is to raise the urgency of ending homelessness and to remind people that in a city with a $14.5 million budget there are still people living and dying on the streets,” he said.