Remembering those who died while homeless in 2008

On Dec. 18, many within the community will come together for the 24th annual Homeless Memorial March and Service to honor those who have died while experiencing homelessness. People who were formerly homeless, as well as homeless advocates in the community will also be remembered. The event certainly raises awareness of the issue of homelessness, but it primarily exists to quietly memorialize the individuals who have passed.

As at most funerals, attendees also reflect on their own lives, their own mortality. People die every day, homeless or not. But what if your death went completely unnoticed? What if no one stopped to reflect on your life or your passing? Several years ago, Laura Kadwell, director of Heading Home Minnesota’s Business Plan for Ending Long-Term Homelessness, spoke at the memorial service and shared this: "We must not make the mistake of thinking that because the people we honor are homeless, they have nothing to give. What does it say about us that in the richest country of the world, people, many of them children, do not even have a place to die?"

The memorial march begins at the Hennepin County Government Center and proceeds down Nicollet Mall to Simpson United Methodist Church, where the service and a community meal are held. Marchers carry signs with the name, age and hometown of the deceased (if this information is known). Signs have displayed listings such as: Unknown child — Minneapolis; Father — Duluth; Neighbor — St. Paul.

John Petroskas has been collecting the names for the event for the last several years and has said of the event: "As sad as collecting the names can be, there’s often a fragment of a story to accompany the name: the deceased was a veteran, a college graduate, a mother of two children, a musician. These details can be starkly revealing, heartbreaking and mysterious. How did a man with a master’s degree in English literature end up dying while homeless? How can a highly decorated Vietnam vet die of cancer while living in a shelter? We can’t always answer those questions at the memorial, but it does at least give us a chance to ponder them together."

There is a period or reflection at the service, an open mic, so to speak, when people who knew someone who has passed can get up and say a few words. One of the people who will no doubt be spoken about is Ray. Ray had been homeless a large portion of his adult life. After working with advocates, he was housed the final years of his life.

His advocate had the following to say about him: "I took Ray grocery shopping a few times. For his own needs, Ray was thrifty, but when shopping for Bess his cat, he was a different man. His list would read: Four bags of kitty litter, two boxes Fancy Feast salmon, two boxes Fancy Feast chicken, one bag dry food (premium), and at the end of every list: one cat toy. Ray had been hurt by a lot of people in his life, but he could care for and love Bess, who returned his affection. I believe that love is what allowed him to survive cancer as long as he did. Even on his deathbed Ray found the strength to tell me how to take care of Bess."

Many people experiencing homelessness go through their days invisible, with people looking straight through or avoiding them. After listening to the period of reflection at the service, one witnesses the impact that these people had on the lives of others. Hopefully, they had an inkling of this while they were alive.

Eric Johnson is the communication and marketing manager for Simpson Housing Services in Whittier. The Simpson blog is at


The Homeless Memorial March and Service is Thursday, Dec. 18. The march begins at 5 p.m. at the Hennepin County Government Center, 300 S. 6th St.

The service is at 6:30 at Simpson Church, 1st Avenue South & 28th Street, with a community meal following. Go to for more info.