At least 20 people experiencing homelessness in the United States die every day, according to HomelessDeathsCount.org. To help remember and honor those who have died, the National Coalition for the Homeless began sponsoring memorial services in 1990.
Each year, the Homeless Persons' Memorial Day is observed on the first day of winter, Dec. 21, which also is the longest night of the year. For people who are homeless, it is a night that represents the harsh realities of living on the streets.
Over 200 communities across the United States now hold memorial services each year, according to DeBorah Gilbert White, director of education for the National Coalition for the Homeless, based in Washington.
"The homeless population is graying," Gilbert White told OSV News in a telephone interview, which means more are dying. She works with homeless advocacy groups around the country sponsoring the memorial services and tries to track the number of people who have died each year.
"We have over 300 names so far this year. That's way too many people who are dying without housing," she said. "Our theme this year is, 'One life too many. Another year too long,' because at some point, we want to end having a memorial and having all of these names come in."
The coalition's website, nationalhomeless.org, has a form that homeless advocates can download and print. It includes space to list the names of people they know of who have passed, she said.
The memorial services also serve to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness and seek to prevent it, said Gilbert White.
"Part of what we are doing with the memorial is lifting the people who have passed, but also helping people to understand that homelessness is an issue that can be solved in this country," she said. "We are also developing awareness by breaking down stereotypes about who is homeless and why."
Breaking down stereotypes is a personal mission of Gilbert White, who was homeless in 2011.
"I experienced homelessness through eviction," she said. "I was laid off and not able to find work. I couldn't continue to pay rent and so I wound up in a women's shelter for a short time."
She said that experience showed her that "we needed to do more, that the myths and stereotypes that people had (about the homeless) had to be dispelled."
In Washington, a memorial service sponsored by People for Fairness Coalition was held Dec. 21 at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, said Gilbert White. More than 100 people were remembered.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, an evening memorial service began near the entrance of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church with a candlelight prayer service and circle walk.
"This memorial is important because it allows those struggling on the streets and in shelters to know that people care about them," said Jesse Brunette, executive director of St. John's Ministries, which sponsored the service.
St. John's Ministries, an ecumenical, faith-based ministry, operates men's and women's homeless shelters in Green Bay.
"Nobody wants another person to die cold and alone on the streets, but that is the sad reality we face," Brunette told OSV News. "This memorial also reduces the stigma people face while homeless. Attendees start to see people beyond just being homeless. Together we can mourn the loss of those who passed away too soon. And then, together, we can build a better future to ensure others don't suffer the same fate."
A procession into the church featured men and women carrying pairs of boots representing each homeless person who died in the Green Bay area in the past year.
According to Steve Schauer, director of community engagement at St. John's Ministries, 16 people were remembered at the service. During a litany of names, Karmen Lemke, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Green Bay, read the names of each person as volunteers carried a candle forward and placed it on the sanctuary steps. A 17th candle also was lit to remember all those who died and whose names were unknown.
In Madison, Wisconsin, JustDane, an urban outreach ministry, has held an outdoor memorial service since 2009. "We were inspired to do so after helping organize a funeral for someone who died of sepsis on a bench outside of the state capital," said Linda Ketcham, executive director of JustDane.
The afternoon service featured a horse-drawn hearse that led a procession around the capital, said Ketcham. This year, JustDane's memorial service recognized 32 people who died in the last year.
The interfaith service has raised awareness about homelessness in Dane County, said Ketcham. "When we first started the event, there were two elected officials who would attend. Now, we see city council members and county supervisors at the event, and representatives from various funding organizations and more faith communities attending."
In the Diocese of Orange, St. Timothy Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel hosted the eighth annual memorial service Dec. 21. For the first time, more than 500 people who died homeless in the past year in Orange County were remembered, said Gina Marie Seriel, founder and executive director of Our Fathers Table, located in south Orange County, which sponsors the annual service.
"Everyone matters," Seriel told OSV News. "Those who die on the streets matter just as much as those who die in a mansion. If we are able to get just one person to see that by our service, it creates a ripple effect -- one more person understanding our homeless are just like them, breaking down the stereotypes and stigma."
In a press release, Father Al Baca, the Orange diocese's episcopal vicar for interfaith and ecumenical affairs, said the service "is an evening that opens the human heart to a very serious issue in our local community -- that over 500 homeless persons died last year in Orange County. This is shocking."
The interreligious memorial service included representatives from the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Latter-day Saints, Assyrian Church of the East, African Methodist, Bahá'í, and Muslim faiths, said Seriel.
"The shocking number of people who die on the streets of Orange County indicates our own failures to adequately house, provide services for, accompany, and build up our community in ways that make it easier for people to flourish," said Greg Walgenbach, the diocese's director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. "We are obligated to act and welcome this opportunity for prayerful remembrance of the lives of these dear neighbors."