On Dec. 21, the northern hemisphere experiences the longest stretch of prolonged darkness of the year. In Seattle, the sun dipped toward the horizon at 4:20 p.m. In the last dying rays of natural sunlight, a group gathered around a tall, bronze statue marked with cutouts of leaves on the north end of Victor Steinbrueck Park.
The Tree of Life, as it is called, stands in remembrance of homeless people who lost their lives in Seattle and King County, and the winter solstice is the day that communities around the country do the same.
Faith leaders, formerly homeless people and their housed allies stood quietly around the statue, lit by plastic flickering tea candles and read one by one the names of 114 people who died outside or by violence in 2018.
It was, as it has been in previous years, a record-breaking figure — as the number of people surviving on the streets of Seattle and King County swells year on year, so does the number of people who lose the fight.
“Tonight we remember 114 of our sisters and brothers. Our community — institutions, systems, governments, the people of this county — failed to provide the circle of support and resources they needed to preserve their lives,” said one church leader.
Then they began reading the names, each followed with a pause that the gathered people filled with the phrase “We remember.”
When the list was finished, organizers passed out cups with a hole cut in the bottom and fit with a candle which they lit to begin the candlelight vigil. The group marched silently through Pike Place Market, their solemnity at odds with the merriment of tourists snapping photos of Starbucks and waiting in lines for a warm piroshky.
A man on a bicycle swooped around, keeping an eye on the procession and letting organizers know when vigil attendees had been left behind by a short light as they walked up Pike Street and toward the ultimate destination, Westlake Park.
“If you want to go fast you go alone,” he said. “If you want to go far, you go together.”
The procession arrived at Westlake Park and took up positions adjacent to Pine Street. Music from a carousel floated in the air and holiday revelers streamed by, many oblivious to the somber nature of the event. With their candles, the vigil blended into the holiday atmosphere, like a group of carolers gone silent between songs.
Carol Cameron has been involved with the Homeless Remembrance Project, a project of the Women’s Housing and Equality Enhancement League (WHEEL), since its inception in 2003. The group organized to get the Tree of Life statue installed at Victor Steinbrueck Park and to spread leaves of remembrance, bronze leaves inscribed with the name of people who have died, put into sidewalks around the city.
Formerly homeless herself, Cameron has lost friends from her time outside, and things seem to be getting worse, not better.
“Where is it all going to end?” Cameron asked.
Amy Hagopian, who stood on the opposite end of the vigil, believes that it can only end with coordinated government action. Charity can’t solve homelessness, Hagopian said, and the fact that some of the richest people in the world can share the same community as people sleeping outside galled her.
“I guess I’m here because I’m mad,” Hagopian said.
A similar scene played out 90 miles to the north in Bellingham.
About 70 people stood with candles in front of Bellingham’s City Hall in the early evening of the longest night. In this Northwest city of more than 86,000 people, the gathering acknowledged the lives – and the deaths – of people who died homeless on Bellingham streets in 2018.
Cathie Murphy, Bellingham’s Homeless Outreach Team manager, spoke to the gathering about honoring and mourning the “sons, daughters, family, spouses and friends who have been pushed to the silent margins of society.” Homeless Outreach Team members read off the names of 35 individuals who were known to have died homeless in this community.
This annual memorial was Bellingham’s fourth and one of thousands across the country that communities hold to remember those who die on our nation’s streets. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, an organization that advocates for homeless prevention, the life expectancy of those who experience homelessness is 30 years less than individuals who have not.
Unfortunately for communities across the United States, the response to homelessness has been largely homegrown even though the problem stems from deep, structural problems endemic throughout the country.
A recent report to Congress showed that volunteer counters found 553,000 people sleeping outside on a single night in 2018, roughly flat from the year before. In that same year, the homelessness population in King County rose by roughly 4 percent, a slower increase than years past but still faster than the rest of the country.
Rather than react with a robust overhaul of public housing and the rental voucher program, the response from the federal government has been muted. Ben Carson, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has recommended that the poorest people pay more of their limited incomes toward rent and utilities if they are lucky enough to have a voucher in hand. He has reportedly told aides that he views housing and homelessness as a “local” issue, despite limited local resources to combat the crisis.
And so homelessness continues to worsen, and people living outside continue to die in the richest country in the world at the peak of its material wealth and opulence. And one night a year, people stand to recognize that fact and the miscarriages of justice that have led us to this point.
Becky Spithill contributed to this report.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full Dec. 26 - Jan. 1 issue.
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