National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

written by naehblog
December 20, 2013

In Observance of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, the Alliance is running this guest post contributed by Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the homeless. Last night, Jones was among the homeless advocates in Washington, DC, who held an all-night vigil to honor the lives of the homeless people who have died this year.

Yesterday this Washington Post Article about the vigil put the number of homeless people who have died in Washington this year at 21. Today we have learned that the number is actually 24.

This Saturday, December 21st, is the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. On or around this date each year, the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is observed to remember those who have died without homes. Last year, more than 150 communities representing 40 states and the District of Columbia participated in the 23rd Annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day through local events and vigils. 

I first began working on homeless issues in the late 1980s as a member of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an organization that operates the Federal City Shelter in Washington, DC. One of my regular assignments was to coordinate with the DC Medical Examiner’s Office (also known as the morgue) to collect unclaimed bodies of homeless persons. CCNV would receive cremated remains of these individuals, some dying of natural causes, others from violence or hypothermia.

The remains would arrive at CCNV in cardboard boxes from the crematorium, along with a slip of paper identifying the individual. Some would be unknown to us, bearing a form that simply said John Doe or Jane Doe. My job was to assemble a plastic urn, affix a name plate, and transfer the cremated remains from the cardboard box to the urn. Dust would float in the air as I carefully poured the ashes. Afterwards, I’d place the new urn in a wooden cabinet that was already crowded with other cremated remains.

As an organization working to end homelessness, CCNV became the caretaker of those urns. That cabinet served as a reminder of the true consequences of homelessness – it kills people. We should never lose sight of that reality.

This Friday, December 20th, the National Coalition for the Homeless and CCNV will join with other advocates for a funeral service for one of these unknown homeless individuals. The event will serve as the local commemoration of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Homeless and formerly homeless individuals will help lead the funeral, which will be held at 12 noon at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington.

Along with remembering the life of John Doe, we will read a roll call of homeless people who have died this year in the nation’s capital. The roster includes 24 individuals in 2013.

My experience with those urns at CCNV taught a lesson that I have carried with me in this work: it is not ourselves, but others, who bear the consequences of how effective or ineffective we are as advocates. The National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is an annual reminder of those consequences.