Eleven chairs faced the Salvation Army Harbor House Tuesday evening, representing the number of those who passed away this year while homeless in Columbia.
About 30 people attended a ceremony of remembrance marking National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
The sun set as the 5 p.m. event began on the night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Gloved hands blocked the chilly wind away from lit white candles while friends and strangers shared lighters when the ceremony began.
With remembrance events occurring in more than 300 cities, local residents honored their own homeless community members who passed away this year with remarks from six local activists.
“Each of them was born and raised and had dreams and aspirations, and it wasn’t to die on the streets of Columbia,” said John Trapp of AAAAChange. “The fact that it’s happening and there’s not more of a public outcry is embarrassing.”
Trapp added that if any other population was dying at the rate of homeless people, there would be a lot more action. He said he personally knew nine of the individuals who died.
The vigil was important to Lorrie Berends, who was joined by her dog, Lucky.
“It means quite a lot to me because I’ve been homeless myself, and I know some of the people that passed away,” she said.
Berends mourned the loss of her friend Matt, who was known as “Jesus” by his loved ones. She reminisced about other friends, sharing memories of dancing together and calling them “free-spirited, kind and loving.”
Tuesday was the 31st annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
The vigils — one in Columbia and another at Jefferson City’s Salvation Army homeless shelter — were the first in mid-Missouri, however, according to event organizers. The goal is to make this an annual tradition in both cities.
Amy Cedervall spoke after each activist, giving thanks to the efforts of the organizations they represented.
The sounds of the outdoors — noisy trucks, helicopters and emergency sirens — interrupted the speakers every now and then.
“We all know what the problem is — there’s just not enough affordable housing here in Columbia,” said Yolanda Day of Phoenix Programs, a local nonprofit organization.
She added that she calls the homeless population her “street angels.”
Cedervall ended the gathering with a prayer, saying the event was the first of its kind in Columbia, “but I don’t intend it to be a last.”