On or around the first day of winter every year, communities across the country celebrate the lives of those who have died on the streets. Wendy Grace Evans attended the recent march and vigil in Albuquerque and describes the experience.
It’s Tuesday December 9, 2008. I walk through the brutal cold and listen to the stories of people walking with me. I am six months sober this week and grateful to be awake for this privilege. Three men drum a testimony to life in a small throng of footsteps and voices that carry us from Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless to the First United Methodist Church.
“The reason we are here,” explains Chuck Perez, “is to understand that one death is too many.” Chuck is formerly homeless. And he’s sober. He works for a living wage as a peer counselor at Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless. He speaks with conviction when he tells me that there is no greater group of dedicated people than the service providers in this city: “It is extremely important that there are people supporting each other on this march today.”
William Marckstadt is homeless. He’s also sober. He tells me that he has been living in pain since his girlfriend died in 2005. He volunteers at shelters six days a week to keep going and to stay sober. He holds my gaze for a long time.
I also speak with Michael Hubert, an outreach coordinator for Value Options, an organization that serves as a statewide entity for the New Mexico Interagency Behavioral Health Purchasing Collaborative. “I lived on the streets for nine years, and today is important in honoring some who have died, some who live on the streets, and some who thrive.” Michael offers that his own personal experiences with homelessness make his voice valuable as a service provider. “ I learn from books, but it is my experience that really drives home the point. There is a solution for homelessness,” he says simply. “It’s called a home.”
When we arrive at the church, I find a seat and think about why I am here. Reverend Trey Hammond opens the ceremony with blessings and explains that in Albuquerque this last year there have been 45 documented deaths. “These are not statistics,” he says. “These are human beings, and this event has been organized around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Too often, people die alone, so we gather to pray and to recommit ourselves to ending homelessness.”
The room fills with poetry, song, prayers and candlelight. Bob Bowman sings Amazing Grace. This song unfolds me and I feel a collective grief and a collective joy engulf the room.
The next morning, the day after the Albuquerque Homelessness Memorial and Vigil, I awake in my home to a phone call from the photographer who attended the ceremony with me. She explains that in every photograph during the candlelight ceremony there is a glowing orb. “I have spent all night researching what my camera could have done to create this orb and there is no explanation,” she says. “So I called my mother and she said, ‘Cristal, you know what it is…angels.’”
One who attended the service captured the essence of it better than my word ever could: “It is only by a miracle, by a breath, that my name is not on this list.”
Over the coming days, memorial services, vigils, rallies, and marches will be occurring in cities across the country. For more information on National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, please visit the following websites:
National Health Care for the Homeless Council: www.nhchc.org/memorialday.html
National Coalition for the Homeless at
National Alliance to End Homelessness at www.endhomelessness.org/