This year, 88 homeless people in Broward County died on the streets or from conditions related to their homelessness. 88 people who have names, lived lives just like ours, and perished without anyone ever knowing. Their lives were commemorated at the Homeless Person’s Memorial on December 15th in a solemn but moving service at Hope Central in Fort Lauderdale, honoring each person who had perished.
The service, which began back in 1995, was birthed out of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. The organizers of this year’s Broward service, including Broward Health, Healthcare for the Homeless Consumer Advisory Board, Henderson Behavioral Health, TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness, Hope South Florida and Christ Church come together to create this event. A shared meal, offered after the service, offers Christ’s love and comfort.
The memorial began with an opening prayer and a song, which brought many to tears.
“The fight continues, the work continues so that next year when we come it won’t be 88; it won’t be that many,” said Dr. Ted Greer Jr., CEO of Hope South Florida as he addressed a crowded room of over 300 people, both the homeless and local volunteers.
The tragedy of homelessness
According to the 2016 Broward County Point-in-Time Homeless Count Report , there were 2,302 individuals in Broward County experiencing homelessness in 2016, which included both sheltered and unsheltered people. The results showed that 9.1 percent of those are veterans and 7.3 percent are victims of domestic violence. National facts show that about one-third of homeless adults have spent time in a mental institution.
“Since 1990, on or near the first day of winter, which is the longest night of the year, the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council and the National Coalition for the Homeless have sponsored National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness and to remember our homeless friends who have paid the ultimate price for our nation’s failure to end homelessness” said Lorraine Wilby, CEO of the Taskforce Fore Ending Homlessness, Inc. More than 175 cities hold services just like these to commemorate the homeless who have died on the streets or from related conditions to their homelessness and other factors.
The purpose of the day was driven home by the message that Debbie Perry, Administrator of Housing Services at Henderson Behavioral Health, delivered to the crowd. “Homelessness is also a consequence of too little care; these people endure hard weather, but harder internal weather. It is the indignation of poverty. This serves as a reminder of the innumerable hardships the homeless face.”
It was a message not just in honor of the 88 that died, but also for the many homeless that were in attendance. “Isn’t every life worth commemorating? God remembers and so do we. These people were mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Be mindful that this service may be the only commemoration of their lives,” Perry echoed.
It was then that the 88 names were called. As each name was read, a personally decorated paper ornament was placed on the Christmas tree by a member of the audience. It was a grave reminder of Perry’s words that this may be the only time that these lives may be remembered.
“I’ve been attending the Memorial for many years and I took great pride in the acknowledgement of the people on the street. It was a heartfelt presence that the homeless were acknowledged and recognized as human beings,” said Harry Nash, who himself is currently living in a transitional homeless program.
The names of those that have died were also placed on an overhead screen for the audience to see, along with their ages when they passed. In the middle of a sea of names, a gasp and whispering could be heard when the screen showed several people who had passed in their 20’s. Another name was read of a man who passed at age 19.
“Over the years many have expressed their gratitude on behalf of a friend, a loved one who without the service does not get a service, a memorial or even an acknowledgement. I hope that some respond in fear looking over those ages – if one person walked out of that church saying, “this is it, if I keep drinking on the street I’ll end up dead” – that is my hope. The average age of death of a homeless person in Broward is 51 years old – what about a housed person? mid to late 70’s — that is a sin,” said Wilby.
To learn more about how you can help the homeless, contact Hope South Florida at 954-566-2311 or visit their website at hopesouthflorida.org.
Melissa Zelniker Presser is a Jewish believer in Jesus who is chasing her God-sized dream of becoming a full-time writer. She can be contacted at [email protected].