Today marks the 30th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. On this day we come together to honor the lives lost in homelessness this past year, call for change, and advocate on behalf of our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness. National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day always occurs on the longest night of the year, which is usually December 21st. This allows us to reflect on the challenges of not having a warm place to call home. It also amplifies the inhumanity that homelessness is and all the deaths that could have been prevented.
At Catholic Charities we mourn the loss of a woman who we came into contact with during our street outreach (part of the work we do in our Housing Transition Program). She was living outside in one of the homeless camps in SE Portland when Catholic Charities first made contact with her. Over a 2-year period, she got to know and trust our staff developing relationships on the street that eventually made her comfortable enough to go to the drop-in center at the Catholic Charities Clark Family Center. There she would take a shower, clean her clothes, get food in her stomach, and warm up from the rain or bitter cold outside. She eventually became a regular at our drop-in center, but most importantly, she became a dear friend.
Catholic Charities staff noticed that she hadn’t been stopping by the drop-in center like she used to and became worried. One day a man experiencing homelessness, whom none of the staff had interacted with previously, stopped by the drop-in center to let us know of her passing. He said he knew how important her relationship was with Catholic Charities and how special our staff were to her, so he thought Catholic Charities should know of her passing.
Donning masks and rain jackets on a Friday night after work, Catholic Charities staff walked across the street to an open lot full of tents where she used to live. Along with other people experiencing homelessness living in the lot, they laid flowers and stones in her memory and collectively honored her life. As they shared stories of this women’s life, something beautiful happened in that some of the homeless people started to open up about their struggles with homelessness and the loss they felt of community and human connection. It was a night that will never be forgotten and a memory of a friend in the community that will stay in their hearts forever.
No lives should be lost in homelessness. On this day, we encourage everyone to remember and grieve for our many neighbors who lost their lives over the course of this exceedingly difficult year while living outside. 2020 has caused immeasurable hardships for many Oregonians – amidst the COVID-19 pandemic many of our community members face housing instability and fear being without a home in these cold weather months. We cannot let today mark the beginning of another 30 years of homelessness, especially in a region that has historically experienced high rates of homelessness.
We can honor the memories of those we’ve lost by taking action and helping our neighbors experiencing homelessness. At Catholic Charities of Oregon, we are actively working toward ending homelessness because we believe that “home” is at the core of our humanity. We are committed to developing innovative solutions to our region’s most pressing housing challenges and providing services to help those experiencing homelessness in our community. As Rose Bak, Chief Program Officer, shared in a recent blog post on Housing (in)Stability: “The good news is that we know what works: housing that is affordable for everyone, and services for those that need them. The question is: are we willing to make a commitment to get the job done?”