Each year, activists and advocates for people experiencing homelessness gather to remember those who died. Credit: Helena Duncan/Block Club Chicago

WEST LOOP — On a frigid Tuesday evening, activists, parishioners and people experiencing homelessness filled the pews of Old St. Patrick’s Church in the West Loop.

It was the ninth Chicago Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial, a collaboration among the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Franciscan Outreach, the Ignatian Spirituality Project, Old St. Patrick’s Church and the musical nonprofit Harmony, Hope & Healing.

The service honors the lives of those who died in Chicago this year while experiencing homelessness. Sixty-six names were printed in this year’s bulletin, along with “those whose names are known only to God.” 

Keith Freeman, senior organizer for the Coalition for the Homeless, helped compile the list of people who had died while homeless in 2019 by speaking with shelters, homeless services providers, family members and friends.

“We’re the most vulnerable people in the city and nobody thinks about us and then we die,” said Freeman, who was formerly homeless. “They still don’t think about us. So somebody has to represent that population and remember them because they were great people.”

Harmony, Hope & Healing’s choir provided music for the service. Wayne Richard, the coalition’s director of organizing, read a poem.

April Harris, who introduced herself as a mother of two who had twice been homeless, reminded attendees there are 86,000 homeless people in the city of Chicago.

“I can tell you it’s a very daunting, intimidating experience,” she said. “Tonight, I’m asking for your help. Call your alderman, your state representative or the mayor … . This problem needs to be addressed on a significant scale.”

The evening’s centerpiece was a reading of the names of those who had passed away, one by one. Many names were accompanied by brief recollections:

Martin was always helpful. 

Dinah S. had determination in her eyes and lived an eventful life, once running a jewelry business. 

Robert, a fierce leader. 

Raul, from Cuba, loved to tango.

Diana M.B. was a warm and sweet woman who loved to share stories and play UNO cards. She will be remembered for her creativity, sense of humor and strong faith.

A period of silence followed the litany of the names, as the lights dimmed and attendees clutched candles lit row by row from each other’s flames. 

The service concluded with a joyous rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” from the chorus and audience, a reminder the memorial was as much an evening of mourning as it was celebration of the lives of those who were lost. 

Leanna Majors clapped and sang along to the music and filmed parts of the service on her phone. Her reason for attending was simple: “To remember the homeless that have passed on is really important. If we don’t remember them, who will?”

The service was also a call to action. Freeman echoed Harris’ message, saying people who want to help the homeless must become politically involved by contacting elected officials to “move different campaigns and proposals forward to help increase funding and resources for the homeless population.”

The Bring Chicago Home campaign, backed by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, is one such proposal, calling for a dedicated revenue stream to reduce homelessness and build more affordable housing by raising the city’s real estate transfer tax on the sale of high-end homes.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot supported the campaign while she was running for office, but homeless advocates blasted her budget proposal in October for not going far enough.

“We need more people that actually care about this issue that are not homeless to talk about it,” Freeman said. “This is a big problem, and if we don’t start at a big scale, this [homeless] population will never dwindle down.”

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