Voices from the Field Blog: Reflections on Homeless Persons’ Memorial

by Lisa Sepahi
November 18, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Lisa Sephai details the significance of Homeless Persons Memorial Day that have been held annually since 1990 on the longest night of the year. These national events are aimed at raising awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and to remember individuals who have died on the streets.

Nancy* was 54 years old when she died of cancer. I first met Nancy at an overnight homeless shelter. She was bubbly and happy-go-lucky, her bright personality stood out despite her dire circumstances. Nancy spent the previous four years living on the streets after losing her job as an accountant. Shortly after I met Nancy, she was offered permanent housing through a Housing First program. 

This housing opportunity could not have come soon enough; shortly after becoming housed, Nancy learned that she had terminal cancer. Fortunately, Nancy was housed when she died, but the years on the streets had a significant impact on her health and her ability to seek the treatment that she needed to diagnose and treat her illness. Nancy's story is not unique; however, Nancy was fortunate to die in the comfort of her own home with her friends around her. Many people experiencing homelessness are not as fortunate and die on the streets.

It is for this reason that each year The National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board, and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council encourage communities to host public events on December 21 to remember those individuals in our communities who have died homeless in the past year.  Homeless Persons Memorial Day events have been held every year around the first day of winter and the longest night of year since 1990. 

Homeless Persons Memorial Day raises awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and serves to stand as a public memorial in recognition of friends and neighbors who have died on the streets. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides toolkits that include an organizing manual, posters, and fact sheet to help groups organize events every year.

According to The National Health Care for the Homeless Council:

  • Homelessness dramatically elevates one's risk of illness, injury, and death.
  • The average age of death of a person experiencing homelessness is about fifty years, the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900.
  • People experiencing homelessness suffer the same illnesses experienced by people with homes, but at rates three to six times higher.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness die on the streets from exposure to the cold.
  • Poor access to quality health care reduces the possibility of recovery from illnesses and injuries.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness die on the streets from unprovoked violence, also known as hate crimes.

Homeless Persons Memorial Day is an opportunity to bring attention to an every day tragedy. It stands as a testament to the vital importance that housing plays to the health, well-being, and safety of all people.

For more information on events in your area or if you are interesting in hosting your own event, visit: http://www.nhchc.org/resources/consumer/homeless-persons-memorial-day/ and http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2013-national-homeless-persons-memorial-day-

*Name has been changed

Source: National Health Care for the Homeless Council (2006) "The Hard, Cold Facts About the Deaths of Homeless People" http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/HardColdFacts.pdf

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Category: General | Guest Entry

A One Year Chip

by Wendy Grace Evans
June 21, 2010

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Recently I listened to Joe*, a man in recovery talk about an experience that occurred shortly after his first year of sobriety. While his life had improved significantly as a result of intensive work with other alcoholics and the willingness to follow a spiritual program of action, he was still struggling, as many people do throughout the ongoing recovery process. Life does not cease to happen in the midst of finding recovery. It happens over and over again and people learn to live with the emotions and feelings that unfold without having to take a drink, or use any other substance.

He described walking in an urban area. Two men jumped him, took his wallet and the little cash he had. Both men were living on the street and in a desperate place. As they pulled the money from his wallet, his one year chip fell rolling to the ground, along with the money. In a moment, one of the men picked up the chip, ignored the money and turned it over in his hand, staring at it with recognition and reflection. The other man took off with the money. Joe describes this incident with a contemplative awe.

Chips are given out in recovery meetings to mark time periods of abstinence, starting at 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, 6 months, 9 months, one year, 18 months, and then annually for every year of sobriety. The chips starting at one year are solid, and rest with weight in your hand.

After staring at the one year chip for some time, the man who had originally set out to take Joe’s money, sat down on the curb. Joe describes the man as wearing soiled clothing, in need of a shower, very thin, and missing many teeth. He had been on the streets for years. As he turned the chip over and over in his hand, he told Joe that once he had been sober for four years. Joe sat down on the curb next to him and they talked for three hours. The man shared how beautiful his life had been. His family had returned to him. He had owned a business and a home. A sober life had been full of gifts.

Eventually the conversation ended and the two men went their separate ways. Joe explained that he never saw the man again, but believed their meeting was not a chance event as he continues to share the experience today with people who are often in need of stories that generate hope, compassion, and possibility.

*Joe’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.

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Category: HRC Insight