Encampment sweep on a cold day in January 2022 in Fresno. Photo by Bob McCloskey

Remembering Unhoused People Who Died on the Streets

In the mid-1980s—at the start of the country’s current wave of homelessness—advocates in Philadelphia and New York City set aside one day a year to remember the people who died homeless there. They chose Dec. 21. Their grassroots organizing efforts have received national recognition since 1990.

Why did they choose Dec. 21? Pagans are as welcome to attend as anyone else who wishes to honor the people who in 2022 died homeless in Fresno County. But Dec. 21  wasn’t chosen because it’s the winter solstice. Rather, it’s the shortest day preceding the longest night of the year, which some people will endure without basic necessities as they do on other, shorter nights.  

As the first day of winter, Dec. 21 marks the start of the coldest season of the year, in which people have suffered hypothermia and died of it on the East Coast and elsewhere. Though not as well known, homeless people living in the Central Valley also suffer hypothermia, evident in the swollen flesh surrounding their fingernails.

The bitter cold of northern cities brings to mind stark images of men frozen to bus benches. But hypothermia is possible even when the temperature is in the high 50s. (Yet, the warming centers in Fresno don’t open until the forecast low temperature is 35 degrees, doing little to alleviate cases of hypothermia.)

Besides exposure to the elements, terminal diseases like diabetes and heart disease beset and eventually kill people experiencing homelessness in this country. In fact, the rates of those two diseases among the homeless population are sometimes 3–6 times higher than that of the general population.

The salty and sugary foods served at many nonprofits in Fresno and elsewhere (however popular those foods might be) are suspect. Such “foods” are among many factors conspiring to bring about homeless people’s early demise. (Ours, too, unless we shop for our groceries wisely.) 

“The homeless”—a phrase Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and others convey with a sense of otherness—are really not so different from us. For one thing, diabetes and heart disease are the leading killers of housed Americans, too.

The people we remember on Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day (HPMD) are us, separated by a social condition on which many will judge them and hastily cite alleged personal failure.

We think people experiencing homelessness have a moral obligation to seek recovery from it in any way that doesn’t compromise their self-respect. And if they don’t find a way, which is no small feat, the outcome shouldn’t be a death sentence.

True, a majority of homeless people experience a substance-use issue of some kind. You and I might develop such an issue, too, if we experienced homelessness and endured the many stressors it brings.

Though drawing hundreds, even several thousands of attendees in other U.S. cities, HPMD has barely sunk roots in Fresno. In 2012, a memorial was held at Roeding Park at which Rev. Floyd Harris spoke inspiring words.

Sporadically in past years, the Fresno Diocese and the Poverello House held events on or near HPMD.

Notably, homeless advocate Desiree Martinez has held several vigils for individuals who died homeless and in her friendship, celebrating their lives and grieving the losses.

Wonderful as those vigils are, HPMD is a sad and somber day of commemoration with little room for celebration. Every individual’s premature death is a loss of infinite value. On HPMD, we confront the fact that many people (about 60 in the county or one per week) have died homeless.

We recognize an individual who belongs to a community might not be able to prevent another’s premature death, but a strong community could and should do so. And so for HPMD, we reflect on our shortcomings as a community.

Every year, HPMD is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the people who, earlier in the year, died homeless in the county were indeed people and so deserve to be remembered. Held annually, the event sounds a moral call to respect the worth of every individual, and to build a responsive community reflecting the needs of all its members. 

The writer emceed the HPMD event held last December—just three days after the lifeless body of Angel Flores, who’d been homeless at age 27, was found in the Tower District. Four faith leaders spoke at the event and read the names of the 54 people who in 2021 died homeless in Fresno County. Their inspiring talks can be heard in a video in the Fresno Homeless Advocates Facebook group. Search the word “memorial” in the group.

News of Flores’s violent death struck an urgent chord with Caryn Kochergen, who’d recently begun doing homeless outreach in north Fresno. Kochergen was prompted to give more of her time and effort to do such work and on a more regular basis.

Her family being fifth-generation Fresnans who emigrated from Russia, she feels a deep concern about where Fresno is heading nowadays. “We can’t just turn our back on them,” she says.

“We need to walk alongside these people and let them know we do care about them and they matter.”

Her late aunt, who’d give sandwiches to homeless people, has also inspired her to do homeless outreach. 

HPMD, says Kochergen, is a “way to remember people who didn’t have a voice. We can hold our own annual event and create awareness. We need to jump on board with other cities who hold this event annually.”

About 100 events are held in the country on or near HPMD, which the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has sponsored since 1990. The NCH suggests six possible HPMD activities:

• Candlelight/Silent march

• Vigil

• Graveside service

• Play/Performance

• Special religious service

• Public policy advocacy event

On Dec. 21, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Kochergen will emcee faith leaders who will speak at the Eaton Plaza amphitheater (2400 Fresno St.). As always on HPMD, the floor will then be open to share a memory of the deceased. We are expecting hot beverages courtesy of the Poverello House, and we hope to see you at the amphitheater.

  • Paul Thomas Jackson

    Paul Thomas Jackson is secretary of the Fresno Homeless Advocates (FHA), a voluntary association whose active members pursue the interest we share in a philosophy of community. Each of us on our own time also does tangible things for people experiencing homelessness. Membership in FHA is open to anyone demonstrating a serious interest in homeless advocacy. FHA has a public group on Facebook that is a broad forum for discussion.

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