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Homeless Vigil Remembers Dead

Santa Barbara Joins National Homeless Person's Memorial Day.

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.

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