On Tuesday night, Adam Kravitz stood in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver with tears in his eyes.
“This day is always the hardest day of the year for me,” he said, while attending a vigil memorializing people who died while experiencing homelessness over the past year.
That morning, Kravitz, the executive director for Outsiders Inn, was in east Vancouver preparing for the opening of the first Safe Stay Community, a new shelter that will house 40 people as they transition into more permanent housing.
“The next year or two is going to be really telling for the homeless crisis in our community, and we’re scared,” he said. “We need people to get involved to help save lives. We need to keep this momentum going.”
On Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, communities around the country gather to memorialize people who died while experiencing homelessness over the past year. The 30-year-old annual event, dubbed National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, is observed in Clark County by multiple community organizations.
Despite the frigid temperature and drizzling rain, some 50 community members gathered outside St. Paul Lutheran Church. There were members of the homeless community, homeless advocates, people who had lost friends and family members to homelessness, and more.
Thirty members and supporters of the homeless community died in Clark County this year, according to event organizers. Their names were written on a large poster board displayed on the side of the church.
Participants lit candles and talked quietly. Some solemnly examined the list of names. The little candle flames sizzled in the rain. Church bells tolled in the distance.
At 5:45 p.m., Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle stepped up to the podium.
“This list of names serves as a powerful and emotional reminder that we must do more to address homelessness in our community,” she said. “Tonight is not just a night for remembrance. It is also a time for affirmation as we commit and dedicate ourselves to ending homelessness.”
After her speech, the list of names was read aloud.
Other speakers followed, including Kravitz, Immanuel Lutheran Church Pastor Adrienne Strehlow, St. Paul Lutheran Church Pastor Linda Marousek, and community members who have experienced homelessness and lost loved ones to homelessness.
One speaker, Mercedes White Calf, shared her experience of losing her mother to addiction and homelessness. After losing her mother, White Calf went from working in a law firm to living in a tent beneath the Burnside Bridge in Portland, where she met people experiencing homelessness who she said saved her life.
“They taught me how to get a tin can and hand sanitizer and how to light it on fire to survive the winter,” she said. “They taught me how to put a garbage bag around my body so I didn’t freeze to death. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
She found help, and now, three years later, White Calf works as a housing specialist for Bradley Angle, a women’s shelter in Portland.
“The fact that I made it to this side, it still shocks me sometimes,” she said. “But I will never forget those people that helped me, because those are my people.”
She then shared the Lakota prayer of the Great Spirit, something she recites when she needs hope. Other speakers, too, shared prayers, songs and benedictions.
Kravitz reflected on how the memorial has changed over the years. This year marked the fifth year the memorial was held at St. Paul Lutheran Church.
He spoke of the challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness, accomplishments made by the community and the ongoing need for more shelter. The need now is greater than ever, he said.
“All that we’ve done as a community and all that we’ve accomplished is 10 minutes too late,” he said. “I think most of us know that. And so that means the real work starts now.”
He said that the growth in services in Clark County over the past five years has been substantial, but maintaining those services where they’re at isn’t enough. As the population grows, services need to grow, too, he said. He wants to see more large shelters and alternative housing models. He wants to see a broad community-based workforce with community health workers, certified peer recovery coaches and more. He wants to see city and county leaders on board with Gov. Jay Inslee’s ambitious homeless plan.
“Today, I deeply mourn the loss of friends, coworkers and advocates,” he said. “My call to action is this: I need you all to help us to make this list less or non-existent.”
Speakers concluded at 6:30 p.m. Participants extinguished their candles and did what they could to stay warm after spending an hour in the cold; part of the memorial was to reflect on the elements and the impact they have on the homeless community.
Some made their way inside, where coffee and snacks were provided. Handing out cookies was Geri Hiller, a 19-year veteran volunteer at St. Paul Lutheran Church Men’s Shelter.
“We got started thinking we were going to end homelessness,” she said. “But each year, it’s grown more and more. Addressing it is a community effort, teamwork at its very best.”
Outside, Council for the Homeless Advocacy and Equity Director Siobhana McEwen talked with participants.
“This is such an important event for our housed community and larger community to be aware of,” she said. “I think that this is an opportunity to really humanize our homeless community, to recognize that these people are human beings that lived rich and complicated lives.”