When a homeless person dies in Los Angeles and no relative claims the body, the person's body is cremated. Once a year, all the remains of bodies that are unclaimed, are then buried together in an unmarked grave. How I know is because I researched after a friend of mine died. My friends name was Joseph, and if you've heard me speak, you've seen me end my presentation with his story. Joseph was lucky. We were able to get him into housing, so he didn't die on the streets. But when I heard that he was going to be buried in an unmarked grave ,I decided to honor Joseph by telling, now tens of thousands of people about his life.
Around December 20th of each year, National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day is celebrated at churches and homeless shelters all around the country. Some places just light a candle and say a prayer, and others go all out to honor the lives of people who died on the streets of their community.
I'm not sure how National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day started, and to be candid - I don't really care! I believe it's a good thing, and I completely support National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day with honor and respect, as every community should. But it's a day that SHOULD NOT EVEN EXIST!
NO ONE should died homeless. NO ONE! The truth: we can end homelessness! The trouble is, and this even makes me more frustrated - it's not drug addiction that's the biggest challenge - not mental illness - it's not even the lack of affordable housing - the biggest challenge to ending homelessness is getting people to communicate, collaborate, and work together on common goals.
We have learned that what worked 10 years ago, and even 5 years ago, does not work so well today. Homelessness has changed. Everything has changed. We have learned that keeping a family in their apartment, instead of that family hitting the shelter system, tremendously helps the family (especially kids) and saves taxpayer money. We have learned that placing people in bunk beds in one large room, and then running them though a "program", is not nearly as effective as helping the person get their own apartment, and then working on whatever issues the person may have. I could go on and on about what we've learned, yet we all see homelessness increasing. Why? People are scared of change, and in many communities - stakeholders would rather fight than coordinate with others for more impact.
Today I was invited by EHC Life Builders and Destination: Home to a memorial honoring those who died in homelessness in Santa Clara County. I have visited before, and each time I see the gorgeous memorial outside of their shelter with all our homeless friends names listed, but this time is the first time I have attended their service. 48 people died while experiencing homelessness in 2013 in Santa Clara County, which is one of the wealthiest regions in America. The oldest person was 80, and the youngest person just 19 years-old. To me, that is unacceptable.
When I asked Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home and champion of Housing 1000, about the 5 people who died last week she respond "That's just it. You can't live outside. You can't live outside for long periods of time, and if you do--it's going to kill you", which is the very real truth and why every community needs to make housing the single most important priority.
Homeless Persons' Memorial Day messes me up like you will never know. I had two friends die this year. Both would be alive today if they were in housing. Catherine should have never been placed into winter shelter because that was a death sentence for her, and the agency knew it. Trouble was, the agency could not place her, which was a problem in homeless services system that eventually caused her death. Meet Catherine here:
Please join us for a moment of silence to honor the lives of people who never should have died while experiencing homelessness. When you're done, I hope that your sadness slowly turns into anger and you'll make a commitment to work with your community to end homelessness!