The National Coalition for the Homeless has designated the winter solstice, which falls on or around December 21 each year, as National Homeless Memorial Day. On this, the beginning of winter and the longest night of the year, homeless and formerly homeless people gather with activists, advocates, providers, and other supporters to read the names of homeless people who died over the preceding year.
For years now I've participated. in the local vigil, which is organized by the SHARP Coalition and Healthcare for the Homeless. It's a solemn counterpoint to the festivities of the holiday season, but a strangely uplifting one as well. Not only does it remind us, in this season of gift-giving and abundance, that our neighbors continue to die of poverty, exposure, and violence; the event is also a reminder that it is possible to make homelessness a "rare and brief occurrence," and that hope exists even in the coldest and darkest of seasons.
After the opening remarks and the musical offerings and the prayers comes the climax of the vigil: the reading of the names of the dead. After each name is recited, the crowd responds "we will remember."
For a long time I had a problem with that response. After all, the main reason that these people's names are on that list is because we as a society did not remember them. We forgot about them and threw them away. Even those of us who attend the vigil in their memory will forget about their names as soon as we hear them recited.
This year, however, I saw it differently. I don't know why, exactly, but something about the way we chanted "we will remember" after each name struck me not as an exercise in futility, but as a statement of resistance, a battle cry against all the cold and lonely ways in which we allow our neighbors to die in this wealthiest of all societies.
This year, instead of hearing my own voice - feeble, inadequate, privileged -- intoning the response, I heard the voices of all of the homeless and formerly homeless people standing around me. When they said, "we will remember," it was not only because they actually knew and would actually remember most of the people on that awful list. They said "we will remember" in defiance of despair and in contention with all the powers of darkness.
Here are the names of the dead:
Joseph J. Levandoski
Donald C. Downes
Lindsay "Scott" Quesenberry
William "Billy" Soper
James D. Hanson
Anton T. Pridget
Lee E. McCoy
James "Jimmy" Smith
Michael D. Burrell
Joel A. Reaves
Patricia "Patti" Phillips
Clarence L. McKnight
We will remember.