On the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, a crowd gathered outside St. Paul Lutheran Church in Vancouver to remember homeless people who died this year.
During Friday night’s annual vigil, nearly two dozen people with local connections were recognized through song, prayer, poems and calls for action. Similar services took place around the country on what can be a particularly cold night. Friday’s low temperature was around 35 degrees in Vancouver, according to the National Weather Service.
As an employee of Council for the Homeless, Caroline Lopez said she gets to know people who are searching for housing; one of those people was Chris Breitenbach, who died this summer.
“He was just so sweet. When I think of him all I can remember is love,” Lopez said to the crowd gathered in front of St. Paul’s steps. The church hosts a winter shelter for men. “All he wanted … was to be with his son, to be housed with his son.”
The mother of Breitenbach’s son, Denice Christie, also died this year.
Lopez offered a Buddhist prayer about compassion and led the group through a meditation.
“We’re here tonight to remember people — brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters — lost from our community in the past year,” said City Councilor Ty Stober.
He said Vancouver has dedicated employees who work tirelessly to build trust with homeless people, but he said he was embarrassed about information revealed in Friday’s Columbian article that showed stricter enforcement of the city’s camping and public storage ordinances.
“As a council we’ve attempted to exhibit respect for all residents no matter their income bracket or housing status,” he said. “While our laws are strict, our directive to staff has been to approach everyone with compassion and empathy.”
He said that hasn’t happened in the last few weeks and he’s working to correct conditions. He acknowledged the recent opening of the Vancouver Navigation Center, where people can come in out of the elements and take care of their needs during the day, as well as the opening of housing projects such as Meriwether Place and the upcoming Bridgeview Resource Center.
Stober choked up as he said: “If you live outside I want you to know I see you, I hear you and I will use my power so others will see and hear you as well. My blessing for everyone tonight is that we may all feel some measure of love and we may all feel some worth and we may all feel some hope.”
Homeless advocate and founder of Outsiders Inn, Adam Kravitz, said he knew nine people whose names were said at the vigil. He said he was thinking of the possible names that could be recited at next year’s vigil, people who may never be housed for whatever reason, whether due to mental health, addiction or not finding success in the system.
“I don’t want to know that I knew this was going to happen. I don’t want to stand by and go ‘I knew I was going to be talking about this person,'” Kravitz said.
He said he would like to see a more trauma-informed approached when it comes to housing people who have issues with mental health and addiction, as well as an end to division and hate. The Columbian article “shows how deep the injustice goes,” Kravitz said.
“They have no bathroom, they have no water, they have no warmth, and there are jokes about hunting them. That should make you enraged,” Kravitz said. “Stand up and say ‘no more.'”
The vigil closed with the crowd singing “Amazing Grace.”