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News / Clark County News

Mourners gather for National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event in downtown Vancouver

43 homeless people died over past year

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: December 21, 2023, 7:03pm

Gloved fingers lifted lit candles into the night sky Thursday as a crowd sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

About 80 people gathered outside St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver to memorialize the lives of the 43 members and supporters of Clark County’s homeless community who died this year. The event, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, always falls on the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

“We’re here to remember and to ensure that those who are at one time or another experiencing homelessness and may have passed away are not invisible,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said.

Remember their names

The glow of the moon blanketed McEnerny-Ogle as she told the gathering about progress the community has made since last year’s memorial. Two additional Safe Stay shelters opened — bringing the total number of beds up to 160 — and Vancouver voters renewed the levy for the Affordable Housing Fund.

14 Photos
Chinook Indian Nation vice chairman Sam Robinson, left, sings a blessing song Friday, Dec. 21, 2023, during a Homeless Persons Memorial Day event at St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver.
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day 2023 Photo Gallery

But McEnerny-Ogle said the names read at the event were a “powerful and emotional” reminder the community has so much work to do. She encouraged the community to keep saying the names of the deceased.

“Tonight, we grieve for the lives lost to homelessness but also that their memory pushes forward from this long, dark night into a brighter more hopeful future,” McEnerny-Ogle said.

Community members took the stage to share stories about those on the list — parents, children, friends, neighbors.

Jimmy Payne’s artwork hangs all over Pastor Linda Marousek’s home. The two met in 2006 and crossed paths throughout the years.

“I cried when I heard he died,” Marousek said.

Outsiders Inn shelter team member Alicia Sizemore said her hand will always be extended to those who need a bit of help getting on their feet.

“Somebody put their hand out to help me out, and my hand’s out for anybody who wants help up,” Sizemore said.

Laura Ellsworth, public policy and engagement manager of Council for the Homeless, said this is the sixth memorial she has participated in while at the council. She said the community continues to gather rain or shine, and no matter how low the temperature drops.

“On the first night of winter and on this longest night of the year — and as cold as we get in this hour outside — I do feel warm knowing that we are together remembering our people and that they mattered,” Ellsworth said.

Forgiveness and grace

Adam Kravitz, executive director of Outsiders Inn, has issued calls to action at the memorial each year: police reform for unsheltered homelessness, policy changes, more empathy, more shelter.

In 2022, his call to action was to believe in people. And while he was addressing the crowd then, someone shouted from across the street, “I’m right here,” Kravitz recalled.

“I couldn’t recover what I was trying to say, I couldn’t bring the conversation back to the feeling I had,” Kravitz said. “I couldn’t let go of the fact that I knew exactly how he felt. I might have been him.”

That moment’s feeling has been on Kravitz’s mind for the past year and has shaped his and his team’s, work, he said. And it shaped this year’s call to action.

Kravitz’s first two calls to action were for the community to have a collective understanding of homelessness and for residents to nurture themselves, families and values.

But his main focus this year was forgiveness and grace.

“I don’t know much about grace; I’m not an expert, not a pastor,” Kravitz said. “But what I think I know about grace is that grace is treating all persons like honorable citizens. … We can’t help our community grow and heal without forgiveness and grace.”

Ellsworth, with Council for the Homeless, said as a community, we can make change so that homelessness doesn’t continue to impact so many residents — especially so people are not dying outside.

“To the individuals on our name board tonight and on our programs: You matter and you are loved and you are missed,” Ellsworth said. “And we will keep working, and we will not forget you.”

More in This Series

Attendees hold candles Friday, Dec. 21, 2023, during a Homeless Persons Memorial Day event at St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver.Outreach workers share obituaries for those in Clark County homeless community that died in 2023
Homeless outreach workers and service providers wrote these obituaries for 18 or the 43 people connected to the homeless communities who died in the past…
Attendees hold candles Friday, Dec. 21, 2023, during a Homeless Persons Memorial Day event at St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver.Mourners gather for National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event in downtown Vancouver
Gloved fingers wrapped around candlesticks on Thursday to memorialize the 43 people who died over the past year while experiencing homelessness.
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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.