The longest night of the year occurs on the winter solstice, which was just last Wednesday.
For communities across the country, the cold and long winter night serves as an opportunity to shed light on an often overlooked problem — homelessness.
A Day of Awareness
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day takes place every year on December 21st. The observance of HPMD began back in 1990 with the goal of promoting awareness and action for the nearly 43 million Americans living in poverty and at risk for homelessness.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the day is to recognize that “in a country of wealth, there are people whose life expectancy is shortened due to what preceded and occurred while they were homeless.”
Because of the lack of access to necessary medical treatments, homeless people have a mortality rate around four to nine times higher than those who aren’t homeless and are at greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, substance abuse, and mental illness.
A Call to Action
Across the country, communities stand together to hold vigils to not only raise awareness but to remember the lives lost. It’s estimated that about 700 homeless people die each year from hypothermia alone during cold peaks in the winter, and around 2,700 homeless people total.
And with homelessness, there’s no “typical type” or average statistic on homelessness. Anyone can be homeless. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that in 2015, there were:
- 564,708 people homeless on any given night.
- 206,286 homeless families.
- 47,725 homeless veterans.
And according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, in 2014, 1 in every 30 children was homeless at some point — meaning 2.5 million children were without a home at some point that year.
Honoring Those Who Died
The “longest night vigils” take place in communities everywhere. Many services are held outside, in below freezing temperatures to give people just a glimpse of the daily struggle homeless people feel.
In St. Louis, dozens of people gathered at the Centenary United Methodist Church for a memorial service and read the list of names of people who died homeless this year. The service has been held every year since 2004 and has honored the lives of more than 260 people.
In Colorado Springs, more than 50 people gathered outside to honor the community’s homeless. The ashes of one homeless man were spread in front of a community tombstone used to honor all the homeless who have died in Colorado Springs. Steve Handen told the Colorado Springs Gazette that “The people we have buried here at the memorial wall have family — we’re their family.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, the vigil included a horse-drawn hearse that circled the state capitol and a name reading of the homeless who died in the community. Some community leaders and activists even camped the night outside to raise awareness and collect donations for the community’s homeless.
Other vigils took place in several cities, including Washington, D.C.; New York City; Baltimore; Erie County, Pennsylvania; Lincoln, Nebraska; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Springfield, Missouri.
How to Help
While the vigil serves to honor and remind us of those lost, it’s also to call attention and help end the problem. Activists are hoping the vigils will push a call for increased funding to provide affordable housing options to help the homeless get back on their feet.
If your funeral home wants to help next year, consider hosting the following events:
- Candlelight/Silent march
- Graveside service
- Special religious service
- Public policy advocacy event
The National Coalition for the Homeless shares the following tips from their website:
- Determining how many homeless persons have died during the previous year in your community. There is no official tracking of homeless deaths in most communities, so start now to collect the names of those who die. Work with people who are homeless, service providers, and public officials to compile as complete a list as possible.
- Remembering your friends, family members, and neighbors by sharing their story through Bloggers Unite
- Obtaining a proclamation from your local and/or state governmental body. You will find sample proclamations in our Organizing Manual.
- Letting us know in advance the logistics for your event. This allows us to alert the national media of events happening locally.
- Tweeting about your event with #HomelessMemorial. Once the event is over, let us know how it went, list of names read, how many attended and any media coverage. As sponsors with over twenty years of experience, please let us know if we can provide any additional information, help or advice.
Does your funeral home already participate in a vigil to raise awareness of the homeless and honor the lives of those lost? We’d love to hear your stories. Share with us in the comments below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and your story could be featured in a blog post!