From dusk to dawn, 10 men and women talked, prayed, and dozed beneath the cold, cloudless Isla Vista sky last night, December 21. They were part of a vigil for the 20 homeless Santa Barbarans who died on the streets in 2006 and the innumerable others who preceded them.
Huddled around a campfire on the grounds of St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, the participants were the stalwart remnants of a 25-person crowd that gathered at 5 p.m. for a meal and religious service marking National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. Father Jon-Stephen Hedges, pastor at St. Athanasius (who also tooks these photographs), organized the event along with members of the chruch’s outreach ministry, the St. Brigid Fellowship. At the Vespers service, Hedges read the names of 40 dead homeless people. When the sun set and the temperature dropped, the crowd thinned to the core group of 10. Three were homeless themselves, the rest were outreach workers and citizen advocates seeking a measure of closure on the grief that needless, lonely deaths elicit. Since 1992, National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day has been commemorated on December 21st, which is also, quite fittingly, the Winter Solstice — the longest night of the year.
To the shivering souls who participated in the dawn-to dusk vigil, it certainly felt like it. Noemi (Mimi) Doohan, a family physician with the medical street outreach organization Doctors Without Walls brought along only what she could fit in a shopping bag because that is all a homeless person would have. Father Hedges was bundled in a black coat and black woolen hat. Hot coffee was provided along with marshmallows for roasting.
The event was one of many taking place in cities and towns in 36 states, according to National Health Care for The Homeless Council, the Texas-based coalition that created the memorial. In California, events were scheduled in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Modesto, Santa Cruz, and Ventura. This was the first year Santa Barbara marked the event.
According to Ken Williams, a veteran homeless outreach worker here, about 20 homeless people died literally on, or just barely removed from the street this year. Thirty eight died in 2005, Williams said. The most recent death was that of an older man suffering from mental illness and congestive heart failure. Also this month, the body of a 42-year-old Santa Barbara native named Denise was discovered in an isolated camp. Medical examiners said she’d been dead five days.
Bob was one of homeless who participated in last night’s vigil. He’s been living on the streets and in brush surrounding Santa Barbara for 32 months. Dressed in a red UCSB sweatshirt and seated at a picnic table beside the fire, the balding 56-year-old was lucid and tranquil. He said he became homeless in 1997 after attempting to put his inheritance to work in the stock market. As a day trader, he lost everything but a camper and a truck. After a few more years, they were gone too. Now he rides a bike around town, works as a recycler, and collects food stamps. He just completed an application for disability benefits and hopes to buy a camper by next fall.
“I don’t get drunk. I don’t take drugs. I keep my bike working,” he explained. “Most people think I’m going to get my settlement and then I’m eager to get out of this so I can live my dream of camping.”
As of 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, National Health Care for The Homeless Council had assembled the names of 1,591 homeless people who died on American streets this year. To view the list, go to www.nhchc.org/memorialday/Namesasof1221night.pdf.