Dead on the Street

A vigil honors the homeless who died on the streets this year

People gather on the longest night of the year. Shivering in jackets and scarfs at the county plot of Evergreen Cemetery, they're surrounded by simple, flat headstones, mostly absent of flowers or decor. It's way too cold for all this Tucson blood, reminding everyone why they're here—to remember those who had no reprieve from the cold. To remember those who died homeless.

For the past three years, Ron Austin has raised money for people experiencing homelessness through a GoFundMe. To encourage donations, he shares stories about his own past, being homeless and a crack addict.

He slept on cardboard, with two raggedy blankets, under the 29th Street bridge. When it rained, he got wet. Wind pulled the blankets off him while he slept. He went to shelters, but they were often already full. He ate out of restaurant dumpsters. On Sundays, he would bathe the best he could and wash his clothes in businesses' outdoor spigots.

There was a lady living downtown who occasionally made him a meal "fit for a king," he said. Potato salad, fried tilapia and mixed greens gave him a joy and gratitude that's hard to describe. He made sure only to go by her house every couple of weeks, so she wouldn't think he was taking advantage of her kindness.

"Being homeless is an extremely difficult life for practicing survival, finding shelter, food and being clean," Austin said. "I had to look ahead and see what I needed and how to get it. Very little of that was about what I wanted. It was always about the bare necessities of surviving until the next day."

The annual Homeless Memorial, hosted by the Primavera Foundation, honors all those who have died in Pima County while experiencing homelessness. They died from exposure to the cold and heat. They died from poor health, and they were murdered in unprovoked hate crimes. Their deaths go largely unnoticed by society, as did their lives.

"It's important to remember those people who died in a cold, dark place," said Nejlah Hummer, executive assistant to the CEO at the Primavera Foundation. "It's a time to pause and honor those who were pushed away in crisis while our society, one of the wealthiest in the world, failed to end poverty and homelessness."

Every year, on Dec. 21, National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, Tucson leaders, citizens and homeless advocates join 150 cities and counties around the country to remember and honor these people and to call for action to end homelessness.

Father Steve Keplinger, from Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church, took to the podium like it was his pulpit.

He talked about Jesus, born on a similarly cold night, into abject poverty. Men ruled to benefit the few rich while the poor suffered. And Jesus hung with his own, Keplinger said—the homeless, those on the margins.

"And the terrible reality is that 2,000 years later, not much has changed," he said. His audience shouted amens and affirmations of approval. "To the world's great detriment, Christians strayed from Jesus."

He'd like to blame it on capitalism, on "tyrannical leaders who treat those on the margins with disrespect," on "tyrannical presidents" who support the economic divide, but we all have a part to play in holding our elected and religious leaders accountable, he said.

"When we do not respect every human on this planet, then we have fallen into the same trap as abusive leaders of the past and present," he said. "Someone explain to me how a country that was founded first and foremost on egalitarianism could possibly allow a single person to become homeless, much less millions of them."

Every year, the Pima County Public Fiduciary office gives Primavera a list of dead who don't have any family or money for a burial. This year, 155 people died in Pima County while experiencing homelessness, six of them veterans.

Robert Snyder, who stayed at the Primavera shelter, is one of the people who died this year while experiencing homelessness.

"He was a great guy, always willing to help anybody at the shelter," William White, who works at the shelter, said at the memorial. "I am happy to remember him and not mourn him, and he will surely be missed."

The Public Fiduciary also gives Primavera a list of migrants' remains found in the Sonoran desert. Many of them remain unidentified. With little known about them, they are also interred at the cemetery's county plot. This year, 132 sets of remains were found in the desert, but it's likely many more have died and have not been found.

Brian Flagg, a longtime homeless advocate who works at Casa Maria Catholic Worker Community, remembers when the Armory Park neighborhood was experiencing gentrification in the mid-'80s. The new neighbors filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court to remove St. Martin's Soup Kitchen, run by Episcopal Community Services.

Flagg helped the soup kitchen organizers, Gordon Packard and Nancy Bissell, who later went on to found the Primavera Men's Shelter, organize a protest. In the end, the courts ordered that the soup kitchen close, but Bissell and Packard encouraged Flagg to continue homeless advocacy.

Although he volunteered at the soup kitchen, he said it took some convincing to make him start thinking like an advocate. And all these years later, he's one of the greatest advocates for Tucson's homeless community.

"Our victories haven't always been big and great and huge, but I'm telling ya, things would be a lot worse if we didn't get together and fight all these years for the rights of homeless people and poor people to be considered human beings and to have dignity," he said.

Flagg told the crowd there's only one way to truly affect change and end homelessness and that's by becoming more political—even if it means taking a shower every night to wash off the political slime.

"We need to come together and elect better county supervisors. We need to get together and elect better city council people," he said with a nod to Supervisor Richard Elías and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, both in attendance.

In closing the memorial, percussionist Tony Redhouse led everyone in a Native American song and dance, before participants laid flowers on the graves. Heartbeat and breath, he said, are the most vital thing that we all have and share. A dozen people, including Rothschild, picked up drums, representing the heartbeat. Redhouse sang and everyone joined hands and moved clockwise in a circle.

"When we remove some of the walls that separate us...politically, class systems and everything else, then we begin to bring healing back," Redhouse said. "The people that have transitioned, they're still with us."

Austin explained, from his own experience, that being homeless pushes people farther and farther from mainstream society, making it exceedingly hard to get back in. They become invisible to passersby. Businesses assume they're thieves, and law enforcement considers them pariahs. And eventually, they become like wraiths.

"If they're homeless for six months or more, they develop a fatalism and tend not to see any opportunities above where they are at," he said. "They get stuck in a nowhere situation, and they start acting like the life they are living is the only one available to them. Their condition is then compounded by society's apathy. They see that people look through them rather than at them."

Father Keplinger closed his sermon, calling for people to reclaim our country and our churches, back to the high ideals on which they were founded.

"Make them both once again of the people, by the people and for the people—all the people, all the time," he said. "Let us not stop until homelessness becomes a footnote in our history books. Let us not stop until we no longer have a reason to have a homeless memorial. Let us not stop until no one ever dies again because society didn't care enough to honor each and every one of its members."

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