“In any society, it’s important to honor people who are deceased,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “And people without a place to call home are not often memorialized in any way.”
For more than 15 years, the Coalition on Homelessness has partnered with San Francisco Network Ministries to honor the lives of homeless community members that might otherwise go unnoticed, SFNM spokeswoman June Keegan said.
“It’s really a way for us to celebrate the lives of people who die on the street, to give them dignity and mark the number of individuals who do die,” Keegan said. “Those numbers are largely unreported, and the community doesn’t realize how many deaths actually occur.”
SFNM executive director the Rev. Glenda Hope said that at her request, the Department of Public Health had sent her a list of 47 individuals who died with an “unknown address” this year.
“We don’t really know exactly how many deaths we’re honoring until the end of the event,” Friedenbach said. “People even call out names during the ceremony. It’s not a comprehensive count and is compiled mostly by word of mouth.”
The memorial will be led by representatives of several religions to acknowledge the diverse beliefs of the deceased.
“It’s really a cooperative of multiple religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and others,” Friedenbach said. “The diversity captures the different religious and spiritual affiliations of people who have died homeless.”
Following religious chants, songs, prayers and readings, each name will be read from the list and a commemorative gong will be sounded.
Friendenbach called the memorial service an “essential” acknowledgment.
“Dying while you’re homeless illustrates the worst possible condition of dying–not being with friends and family and not feeling that you will exit this world with any kind of comfort,” she said.
Friedenbach said similar ceremonies across the nation are held on the winter equinox to emphasize the plight of the homeless during the coldest months of the year.
“It’s the first day of winter and we have so many–hundreds of thousands of people–on the streets,” she said. “Wintertime is the most difficult time to live outside.”
Coalition board member Rebecca Nichols fears that the high visibility of homeless people on city streets has desensitized urban communities.
“I think that the ceremony raises awareness,” Nichols said. “After a while, it just becomes wallpaper to many. People are used to seeing someone lying in the street.”
This complacency, she said, has led those fortunate enough to support themselves to make false assumptions about those on the street.
“The only difference is that one person has a roof over their head,” Nichols said.
“Homelessness itself creates mental illness and fosters the drug and alcohol addiction people associate with it.”
Nichols said tonight’s memorial aims to combat these stereotypes and send the message that “these lives matter.”
“I hope that the deaths of these people shine a light so bright that people stop and say, ‘Let’s do something’ and ‘Let’s not be so quick to judge,'” Nichols said. “Nothing else is getting anyone’s attention.”
The memorial service is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at Civic Center Plaza.