For many, the 21st of December meant only three days left for Christmas shopping and the official start of winter.
For the homeless, it meant the longest night of the year and the start of the toughest, coldest months ahead, which some will not survive.
Friday’s winter solstice marked the 22d annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, honoring those who did not make it through the year. At a memorial service at the Church on the Hill on Beacon Hill, the names of more than 130 local homeless and formerly homeless people who died this year were read aloud, a tea light lit for each.
Two large pillar candles were reserved for the nameless, the Joe and Jane Does.
All along the small sanctuary were cardboard headstones depicting various hand-painted art scenes, each with the first name and last initial of homeless people who passed away this year, like Kenneth K., Alberto C., and Georgette S.
“It’s important, because we lose people to the streets,” said Michael Bancewicz, secretary at the Church on the Hill and organizer of the interfaith service. “This is to acknowledge that they’re not invisible. . . . We have to read these names and acknowledge them, and remember them. It’s not like they were just pathetic people.”
After all the candles were lit, the service was extended to read more names that were not on the list initially.
“There are always more names to be read,” Jeff Olivet told the crowd as he sat at the piano before singing a rendition of “Bourgeois Blues.” “This is also a day of anger. It’s a day of righteous anger, and of recommitment to the mission in front of us, the mission of taking care of those who don’t have a home.”
Among those who recently passed away is Stephen D. Hill, whose body was discovered Tuesday near a playground in the Fenway neighborhood. The 54-year-old was stabbed to death, Boston police said Friday.
“Our hearts go out to the friends and family of the victim,” Jim Greene, director of the city’s Emergency Shelter Commission said in a statement Friday. “This recent death is a somber reminder, especially during this season, that we have more work to do to help people move from the streets into shelter, safety, and housing.”
The homeless population in Massachusetts, sheltered and unsheltered, increased by 5 percent between 2011 and 2012, from 16,664 to 17,501, according to data released this month by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That probably doesn’t count the “hidden homeless,” people who do not want to be found, Bancewicz said. He estimates there are approximately 3,000 homeless people in Boston alone. “Some of them think of themselves as disposable,” he said. “It’s very painful. It’s a tragedy; we’re not doing enough.”
Dr. Jim O’Connell, cofounder of Boston’s Health Care for the Homeless Program and featured speaker at Friday’s service, told the story of a local man named John who ran away from home and hitchhiked to Arizona when he was 11. Since 1985, he lived in and out of the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, “on his own terms.”
The 52-year-old, who died this year of complications related to tuberculosis, was among the first people to get an apartment through the Housing First program, O’Connell told the crowd.
“He died at home, and I thought about this as I looked around,” O’Connell said, pointing at the cardboard headstones around the church. “Several of these folks for the first time in memory have been able to die in their own homes, after spending years and years and years in the streets. This is solvable and something we should really celebrate.”
O’Connell said the crude mortality rate for the homeless is 50 percent over 10 years, “which puts them at the highest crude mortality rate we know for any subpopulation in America.” The average age at the time of death is in the low 40s, he added.
“This service is a time for our community, and I hope our whole town, to sort of step back and reflect on some things that often go on that are very hidden,” he said.