An African-American male speaks behind a podium as congregants listen from the pews.
Reginald Black, the advocacy director for the People for Fairness Coaltion and a Street Sense Media artist and vendor, spoke at the memorial service. The symbolic coffin, the signs bearing names and ages for roughly half of the people who died without a home in DC in 2019 sit in front of the altar. Photo by Will Schick

Around  50  people  gathered  inside  of  New  York  Avenue  Presbyterian Church on Friday, Dec. 20, in honor of National Homeless  Person’s  Memorial  Day.  The  service  was  just  one  part  of  a  series  of  events  taking  place  in  over  180  cities  to  remember those who had passed away during the year while experiencing homelessness.

Beginning  with  a  candlelight  procession  and  an  overnight  vigil, this year’s events culminated in a small gathering of local advocates  and  religious  leaders  to  discuss  the  need  to  have  compassion  for  those  without  homes  and  to  support  ways  to  help people into housing.

Reverend Alice Tewell of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church began the service with a prayer:

“Holy  God  in  the  midst  of  winter,  in  the  midst  of  difficult political and economic times, in the midst of great polarization…We pray for those who died on the streets and in shelters this past year, unrecognized and unseen.”

Tewell  spoke  on  a  podium  that  was  adorned  with  golden wings. On stage, to her left, sat an empty coffin adorned  with  individual  placards  listing  the  names  of  those being remembered.

Reginald  Black,  the  advocacy  director  for  the  People  for  Fairness  Coalition,  spoke  of  injustice  saying  that  “Nobody  should  die  this  way,  nobody  should  have  to  live  on  a  street  corner, at the underpass under a bridge, in a shelter, you know, people should have a place to live.”

Black  said  that  their  mission  at  the  People  for  Fairness  Coalition  was  to  engage  in  advocacy  on  behalf  of  those  experiencing homelessness, and to use their “lived experience as a catalyst for solutions.” Black and many other members of the coalition have experienced homelessness or are currently experiencing homelessness.

In his prepared comments, Steve Thomas, an advocate for the National Coalition for the Homeless, sought to draw attention to the printed list of names of people who died over the past year. Among the 81 people who passed away without homes, only 39 were identified—the remaining 42 names are those of people who were either unidentified at the time of death or whose information was kept private for a variety of reasons.

Another  list  was  given  to  those  attending  the  ceremony  with  the  names  of  people  who  were  recently  housed,  but  had passed away. “Of those people who [we] don’t have names for,” Thomas said, “the ages range from 77 to age 3.” He then added that he was used to reading lists like this, that throughout the years, he had seen lists with people just as young.Seated  in  the  pews,  the  audience  lit  white  candles  and  held  them  up  in  silence  while  Thomas  read  through  the  lists of names.“Adeheid Russell, Age 68. Alice Carter, Age 35. Ben from 801, Age 63. Ben, Age 35. Bernard D, Age 46. D. Cotton, Age 69…Age 23, Age 28, Age 30, Age 31, Age 31, Age 34, Age 39, Age 43…”Following the roll call, Denyse Stuart from the Ebenezer AME  Church  led  the  congregation  in  a  rendition  of  “Amazing Grace”:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”

A  somber  mood  overcame  most  of  those  standing  in  the  audience,  and  several  in  attendance  were  tearful  in  their  mourning.  Many  of  those  who  tried  to  sing  along  struggled  with overcoming their own emotion to vocalize their words.

Following the song, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso took to the podium to offer his own condolences and to say that “the  human  right  to  shelter  and  to  housing  is  such  a  critical  one,  particularly  during  these  winter  months,  and  these  very  long nights.”

Grosso  then  called  out  the  government  and  society  in  general for not “fulfilling this obligation.” He called upon residents to support the Michael Stoops Amendment which seeks to add homelessness as a protected class under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld from the Ohev Sholom Synagogue said that this was his first time speaking in a Presbyterian church. He explained that, in his faith, he is normally required to enter only into buildings that are of his specific faith.

“But when I received the invitation to honor those who died without the dignity of a home, I said that this is something that transcends any other law that binds me,” he said.

In the Jewish faith, he explained, there’s a tradition called a “shiva.” In this tradition, when someone passes people gather around and specifically talk about the person for an entire week. He asked everyone in attendance to think of this tradition, and encouraged them to try it for the week.

Queenie Featherstone, an advocate with the People for Fairness Coalition  who  is  also  a  Street  Sense  Media  artist  and  vendor,  gave Marcy Bernbaum a gift to thank her for her guidance and leadership as a mentor and advisor for the coalition.Featherstone was followed by Rizwan Jaka of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society who emphasized the need for inter-faith collaboration on situations that involve the entire community. He  spoke  of  the  ways  in  which  different  faith  groups  all  emphasize love for one’s neighbors.

Pastor Unchu Na from the Wilderness Ministry started the benediction by having members of the congregation take part in  the  chant  from  the  previous  evening’s  march  on  14th  St:  “Housing is a human right. Fight! Fight! Fight!”