At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, an assembly gathered inside Luther Place Church, located on 14th St NW north of Thomas Circle, to commemorate the lives of 81 people who died without homes last year.
In front of the assembled congregation speakers shared stories about people they knew who had passed away and spoke of the need to provide homes to those who don’t have them. Flanked on either side by Christmas trees adorned with white lights, they mourned those whom they lost and lamented the injustice and indignity and senselessness of homelessness.
Approximately 100 people had gathered in the audience. There were advocates and volunteers as well as housed and unhoused D.C. residents. Hanging over the top of the pews were gold stars suspended on blue ribbons.
Following the introduction of the given by Father John Enzler from the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington, Ken Martin, an advocate with the People for Fairness Coalition, introduced a group of sixth-graders from the National Presbyterian School.
There are many ways to help people experiencing homelessness, one of the students said before adding that, “we all can do more than we think.” The young girl’s words hung heavy over the assembled congregation. For a moment, everyone was silent.
After the children, it was Martin’s turn to speak. He spoke of “homelessness as a curable affliction” and stressed the importance of taking a commonsense approach to finding people housing.
Waldon Adams from The Way Home Campaign, a coalition that advocates for a housing-first solution to homelessness, likened the experience of homelessness to that of a disease. He said, “I think we should all take the Hippocratic oath tonight.”According to Adams, it is unconscionable that people experiencing the trauma of homelessness are not given the treatment they need. He said people who are experiencing homelessness are like people afflicted with severe physical trauma and need treatment—the only remedy for homelessness, he said, is a home.
After Adams, Director Laura Zeilinger from the Department of Human Services and Robert Warren, the Director of People for Fairness Coalition presented an award to the former director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, Matthew Doherty.
In her comments, Zeilinger inferred that the current ICH director Robert Marbut’s approach to homelessness issues was an unwelcome departure from that of his predecessor.
“The contrast with who succeeded him could not be so stark,” she said.
Building off Adams’ comments from earlier, Zeilinger also said that “serious conditions do not know wealth” and that such things could happen to anyone.
Following the service at Luther Place Memorial Church, participants gathered along 14th Street to march south towards Freedom Plaza, carrying candles and signs painted with names of those who had passed. At the front of the procession, four pall-bearers carried a casket topped with black roses and candles to symbolize the passing of the dead.
They marched slowly and deliberately, chanting: “What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!”
“Housing is a human right! Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Curious drivers sitting in cars halted at the intersections between F, G, H and I St NW looked out their windows. Some looked puzzled, others smiled, and still others ignored the organized assembly.
The vigil ended at Freedom Plaza where the marchers gathered to share a meal catered by Made with Love Catering and Ted’s Bulletin.
Andrew Anderson, a member of People for Fairness Coalition, said this was the first year he participated in the organization’s vigil for the homeless. He said that through PFFC he had learned how to advocate for people experiencing homelessness.
Anderson, who resides at a shelter in the District, said that before volunteering with PFFC he had no idea of the scale of the homeless situation in D.C. One of his first tasks working with PFFC was to visit encampments in the NoMa and Union Station area.
“There are homeless people sleeping out in the street in tents,” he said, explaining that he hadn’t personally seen encampments first-hand of this scale in years.
Anderson added that he felt a moral obligation to attend the memorial service and to work with PFFC to advocate for the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
“I’m homeless, also. I experience it. I know what it feels like,” he said.
Temperatures were in the low thirties throughout the overnight vigil and the next day.
On Friday, advocates rose early for a teach-in about the city budget. They were preparing to visit city officials who work across the street from the tent where they slept and lobby for increased investment in housing and homeless services. According to an analysis by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, only 3 percent of the city’s budget is spent on its main housing programs.
While the deaths of 81 men and women had been reported to the advocates who organized the event, The Washington Post obtained information through a Freedom of Information Act request indicating the number of deaths was much higher — at least 117 people presumed to be homeless had died in 2019. According to the Post, “The [D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner]’s general counsel, Mikelle L. DeVillier, said 52 deaths were classified as ‘accidents,’ including 44 cases of intoxication and three in which people were struck by a vehicle. Twenty-seven deaths were classified as ‘natural,’ including 12 cases of cardiovascular disease and six cases of ‘alcoholism.’”
Among those remembered were former Street Sense Media vendors Alice Carter and Chino Dean and a 67-year-old woman previously quoted in several Street Sense articles who gave her name only as Ms. Bobbie. Street Sense Media vendor Angela Pounds died two weeks after the vigil on Jan. 1, 2020.