When the April 6 funeral service began at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, about 30 people sat in the pews. By the end, almost every seat was filled with the friends and family of George Siletti.
“I’m glad we decided to use the large chapel,” said one of Siletti’s friends who came to pay their respects.
People gathered from all walks of life to celebrate the legacy Siletti left behind on Feb. 28, just shy of his 61st birthday.
Steve Petrovich sings and tells the story of meeting George Siletti. Video by Ashley Clarke
His longtime friend, Steve Petrovich, welcomed people into the chapel with a song that he said Siletti inspired him to write.
“George was a very giving person. Others mattered a lot to him. He was very generous,” said Jean-Michel Giraud to the gathering. Giraud is the CEO of Friendship Place, an organization that helps people trying to get out of extreme poverty in the District. Siletti was first connected with Friendship Place in 2004 and became an important part of its community outreach initiative over the years, by sharing his story to inspire others.
Before moving to D.C., Siletti battled with homelessness for nearly 30 years. His friends say he has been homeless in all 50 states.
Sharon Hendershot Jessel, an older sister Siletti had never met until nine months before his death, said that he was the youngest of seven children. Siletti was just 3 when their mother was killed and the siblings were all split up. He had a tough childhood and bounced around a lot. According to Petrovich, Siletti was abused as a child.
By the age of 16, he emancipated himself. More than 50 years later, he reconnected with family members who he didn’t even know existed.
In 1992, while Siletti was homeless, he met Petrovich and the two became inseparable. Petrovich said he was playing music on a park bench when Siletti said of the song, “That’s the story of my life.” They became traveling buddies: While Petrovich played music, Siletti told the story of his his battle with homelessness to people around the United States. Petrovich married in 1998 and moved to Rochester, New York. Siletti, his best man, ended up in D.C. Shortly after arriving in the District, Siletti connected with the National Coalition for the Homeless, where he became involved in going out and speaking to people about homelessness.
“He was lending his voice to the cause of ending homelessness for over 20 years. He educated thousands of young people on the realities faced by homeless people,” said Megan Hustings, director of NCH. “George wasn’t just one of the faces of our speakers bureau, he was also its heart.”
Hustings said that whenever she saw Siletti, he always gave her a warm bear hug. She said he would call from time to time just to check on her and see how she was doing. That’s just the kind of person Siletti was, according to Hustings.
“When he shared his story of his three-decade struggle against homelessness with students and others who attended his presentations, he conveyed a positive message about the inherent value of people and the importance of helping one another,” Hustings said.
“Help the Homeless,” written and recorded by Steve Petrovich. Inspired by George Siletti. Photo of George and Steve “when we fed the homeless.” Courtesy of Steve Petrovich.
Photo Everyone who spoke about Siletti at the memorial said he was very kind, easy going and did not let his traumatic past hold him back.
In 2004, with help from partners of Friendship Place, Siletti finally had a permanent place to call home: Anne Frank House, Inc. His friends said he found joy in the simple things in life such as junk mail, being in the phone book and having neighbors. It made him feel like a part of the community for the first time. Even after he found a home, he never forgot the people who still needed help, his friends said. He remained there for the rest of his life.
Though Siletti experienced homelessness for more than half his years, it did not define him.
His sister said the time she spent with her brother was the best eight months of her life. “I have his ashes,” she said. “He told me that he wanted to go two places before he died, to the mountains with me and to Alaska, because that’s the only state he’s never been.”
Sharon plans to fulfill these wishes.