Remembering those who died homeless

BOSTON — Catholics and other homeless advocates marched Dec. 21 from St. Francis House across the Boston Common to a Statehouse rally preceding the 16th annual Interfaith Memorial Service to remember the 96 Massachusetts residents who died homeless in 2005.

“Our intent is to reverently honor and mourn our neighbors whose spirits are with us,” said Sister Linda M. Bessom, SND, from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the lead organizer of the event.


Sister Linda said the religious homelessness community had held the previous 15 remembrances around Memorial Day, but this year it was decided to make the change in order to synch up with the more common practice nationwide of focusing attention on the problem of homelessness at the Winter Solstice.

“Sadly, people continue to die without a home. We must never forget them on the shortest day and the longest night,” she said.

Clients of St. Francis House, a center open to the homeless during the day, fashioned tombstones for each of the 96 deceased homeless — which included an unborn child — from cardboard boxes, painted gray and decorated with their own designs, said Brother Daniel F. Walters, OSB, who works at the day center.

Throughout the year, Brother Daniel said he received reports from shelters and agencies of those who died on the streets or in shelters to help him keep the year’s tally. He then sends the list to the center’s art teacher who helps clients prepare the cardboard tombstones.

Many homeless shelters are closed during the day, forcing their clients to wander about until the doors open for the evening. As a day center, St. Francis House fills that gap, while providing services and meals to the homeless.

Just before the march began, Brother Daniel made the rounds to the various rooms on the first floor to make the pitch for clients to join the march, but only a few took up his offer.

It is tough to ask someone who is seeking shelter from the cold to volunteer to come outside, he said.

However, during the march one of those clients, John, was in the front of the pack. At the rally on the steps of the Statehouse, where an open letter addressed to Gov. W. Mitt Romney, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and House Speaker Salvatore Di Masi was read, John was holding one end of the banner.

But, it was at the memorial service at The Church on the Hill (Swedenborgian), located behind the Statehouse on Beacon Hill, that John made his impact felt.

Throughout the memorial service, religious leaders from more than 10 faith traditions contributed readings, songs and prayers. In between those contributions, the names of the deceased homeless were read aloud.

As each name was read, Eileen Fortunato of Boston Health Care for the Homeless and Nancy Jeanne Martin of Copley Square’s Trinity Episcopal Church lit a candle.

When it was his turn to read from the list of names, John completed the task with aplomb.

Rather then leave the pulpit when he was done, he instead said in worked up passion that he wanted to offer his own remarks.

“My name is John, and I would just like to say: ‘Let’s end homelessness! I am tired of being homeless!’” he exhorted to the gripped audience in the pews.

The next step for the homeless advocates is to collect signatures for an open letter to be presented Jan. 13 to the governor, senate president and house speaker at the Statehouse, said Sister Linda.

The hope is that the open letter to the three leaders, who were each invited to the march but did not attend, will encourage them to respond to strong moral direction from the state’s religious community to work to prevent more deaths and move closer to ending homelessness, Sister Linda said.

“We must remember that people are dying right here on the streets of Boston because they have no place to live, no health care, no job and often times nothing to eat,” said Raymond L. Flynn Jr., a housing and homeless advocate, who has for many years volunteered at St. Francis House.

“It doesn’t have to be that way. We can do something to help end the pain of our homeless, poor and sick. Silently pray, but vocally express our voice to our political leaders,” Flynn said.

One of the few legislators attending the rally was State Rep. Anne M. Paulsen, D, Belmont, who was introduced and thanked by Sister Linda before the program moved to The Church on the Hill.

Paulsen, who participates in the homeless memorial service every year said, “It is extremely disturbing in a nation of extreme wealth that people not only have to live on the streets, but also die on the streets.”