A hand holds a jar containing a lit candle.
Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

A grassy corner on the outer edge of Thomas Circle is a makeshift burial ground of sorts. It is the final resting place for the ashes of more than dozens of area homeless people who have died over the years and had nowhere else to go.  

Some were estranged from their families; others’ relatives had no money for a proper funeral. Instead, about 50 churchgoers at Luther Place Memorial Church gathered on Sunday morning to honor those lives.  

It’s a commemoration that takes place every year. For 2010, church staff read the names of 24 homeless who died. But tracking is difficult and many more were uncounted.  

Kristen Kane-Osorto, program coordinator at the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies, led the group in a procession around Luther Place, tucked between 14th Street and Vermont Avenue, NW. As they walked, they sang Hymn 882 from their songbooks, “My Soul Does Magnify the Lord,” and stopped to read prayers and share testimony.  

It was the least they could do to honor the dead, Kane-Osorto said.  

“Not only does every human being matter, every soul deserves to have people celebrate the life they had on Earth,” she said.  

For Debra Green, the service was personal. Green, 46, became homeless a year ago after her mother died. She moved into N Street Village, a housing ministry of Luther Place, and met Wanda Murray, who lived with her in Dorm 3.  

Murray became like a mother to her. Green didn’t know much about her because Murray didn’t talk much about herself. Instead, she was a nurturing voice and looked after Green.  

Murray was admitted to Providence Hospital in August, “Mommy’ll be home Wednesday. And Mommy’ll owe you three hugs,” Green remembers her promising on the phone. But instead, she was moved to the intensive care unit and died on Aug. 13. She was 59.  

Murray’s name didn’t make the list that was read on Sunday. In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, that list represented probably only a fraction of those who died around D.C. this year. 

Data on homeless communities is historically unreliable. Although meticulous records are kept of shelter occupancy, people who are transient or do not seek help often fall through the cracks.  

In the late 1990s, Congress directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to aggregate more complete data on homeless people. The department began relying on Homeless Information Management Systems, local databases designed to confidentially collect characteristics and needs of homeless people.  

To compile a list of homeless people who died in D.C. this year, the National Coalition for the Homeless relied on newspaper clippings, reports from the medical examiner’s office and names provided by clinics and agencies.  

It’s an unscientific process, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the coalition, but homeless advocates do all they can to make sure deaths don’t go unnoticed.  

As Street Sense was going to press on the evening of Dec. 21, the coalition was scheduled to begin its own commemoration of homeless deaths at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. By that time, the list grew to 37 names, including that of Green’s friend, Wanda Murray.  

Also listed was Sharon Kelcha, who died less than two weeks ago when she was struck by a car as she walked on the Anacostia Freeway.  

The service was coordinated with more than 150 other cities for National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Since 1990, the coalition has held a vigil every year on the evening of winter solstice, which is the day of the year with the shortest time of daylight. Last year, the participating cities read the names of more than 2,000 homeless people who had died.  

“It’s our responsibility to spend a little time and space when we can think about them,” Donovan said. “Just because you don’t have a home doesn’t mean you don’t have a community.”  

And it’s that call to community that brought Green to the service outside Luther Place on Sunday in 30-degree weather.  

“I didn’t get a chance to go to a funeral for Wanda,” she said. “This was my chance to say goodbye.”  

The congregation returned to the warmth of the church sanctuary, singing, “He cast the mighty from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. He fills the hungry with good things, while others turn away.”  

The service was beautiful, Green said, but she hopes for more when she dies.  

“I hope that at the end of my life that I will have a funeral,” she said, “and that people will remember me for what I did in my life.”