Cambridge, Massachusetts. December 21, 2014. The first day of winter. The longest night of the year.
Last Friday I participated in the annual Homeless Memorial Service at the Church on the Hill in Boston. Prayers were said, songs sung, silences held, and names read. To be exact, we read 98 names—the names of people who died in Boston over the past year while experiencing homelessness. In addition to those 98 names, the audience added a dozen more in the silent space between readings. For each name, we lit a candle.
Our solemn time together in Boston included people who are currently or formerly homeless, along with advocates, activists, service providers, and faith community leaders. We are part of a ritual that takes place on or around the first day of winter each year in communities across the country to celebrate the lives of people who have died homeless in the country and call for policy change that will help end homelessness once and for all.
I’m sick of it.
I’m sick of doing the same thing year after year, while the names keep coming and the candles continue to be lit up. I’m tired of hearing feel good news stories about how close we are to ending homelessness. I’m fed up with the news coverage that spikes between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day then immediately recedes from view.
Death by homelessness is no accident. It is a direct result of bad public policy and misplaced budget priorities that line the pockets of the ultra-wealthy while trampling the poorest among us. People often say homelessness is a national tragedy. I disagree. This is no tragedy—it is a scandal, and a scandal of our own making. We have, as a nation, slashed public investment in housing, created a tax code that benefits corporations and the rich, and neglected the health and education of our people. On top of that, we have jeopardized any hope of racial justice by gutting the civil rights and voting rights act and allowing the ongoing atrocity of racial discrimination in housing, employment, wages, and education. This has resulted in a near-permanent underclass of people who become homeless or live on the edge of homelessness at every moment.
So we can get together once a year and solemnly read names of our friends who have died on the street. But until we fix the underlying inequities built into our public priorities, we will keep reading too many names, lighting too many candles.
Photo of Candles at the Boston Homeless Memorial Service December 19, 2014, Courtesy of Jeff Olivet