Four people carry a coffin
Jane Cave

Every year around Christmas we start to think of those who are living homeless.

And every year since 1990, National Homeless Persons Memorial Day has been observed on or around Dec. 21, the winter solstice and the longest night of the year.

Traditionally organized by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), the day is set aside to commemorate the memory of those who have died while homeless.This year, 25 people were remembered. Similar vigils were held in other cities, but this year’s local events were particularly special.

In addition to a vigil, held on Friday, Dec. 20 at New York Ave. Presbyterian Church, advocacy groups including the People for Fairness Coalition helped organize a variety of other activities, beginning on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 19 with a rally and sleep-out and resuming the following morning with a procession, featuring an empty casket that homeless and formerly homeless pallbearers carried through the city’s streets.

“This was a remarkable two days,” said Michael Stoops, of NCH. While he has organized 24 vigils, he said, this one had added power thanks to the involvement of so many people who themselves are living in homelessness.

A female reporter broadcast the event to the public

“It was very successful,” Stoops said.

Speakers at the rally, held on Freedom Plaza, emphasized the need to get people housed and put an end to homeless deaths.

“People are dying on the streets of the richest country in the world in the nation’s capital. That’s why we’re here. Nobody needs to die in Washington, D.C. for the lack of housing. It doesn’t need to happen,” said Robert Warren, the executive director of the People for Fairness Coalition.

The overnight sleepover that followed was aimed at raising awareness about chronic homelessness. In the midst of it, D.C. City Councilmember Jim Graham invited the group to a Christmas party at city hall. After mixing in with the public officials the advocates returned to Freedom Plaza. Then to the surprise of many present, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray decided to make late night visit to the overnight vigil and spent more than half an hour engaging with the advocates and members of the community. Gray seemed moved by the diligence of the advocates.

“You are real people,” he said. “I’m not a career politician.” He went on to talk about his own years, serving as the founding executive director of Covenant House and as the director of the city Department of Human Services. Afterwards the advocates braved the cold of the night, only to rise early in the morning to find Channel 9 News waiting for them.

More speeches followed. Mayor candidate Andy Shallal and City Councilmember David Grosso expressed a desire to work with advocates to end homelessness in Washington. Marchers took up the casket and carried it northward to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Cameras flashed and onlookers captured video of the large procession accompanying the casket on its journey to the vigil at the church.

Some must have found the silent and somber scene disturbing. All and all, though, advocates agreed the event provided an important chance to show respect for the dead and to raise strong voices for those who continue to live in homelessness. Most of all, they said, it is their hope that someday, memorials like this will come to an end.
Jane Cave