A fresh draft of winter air filled the basement of Western Presbyterian Church on Nov. 22 as a newcomer entered to attend breakfast at Miriam’s Kitchen. At one of the tables, the weekly People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) meeting had gathered to decide on particulars of the coalition’s upcoming Homeless Person’s Memorial Day demonstrations.
Since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless has called on communities across the United States to hold memorial services on the Winter Solstice “remembering your neighbors who have died homeless in the past year.” For its fourth year running, PFFC plans to lead an overnight vigil and other activities surrounding the local memorial service.
As of Oct. 19, The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness had recorded that 31 people from the D.C. homeless community have died since the 2015 memorial was held. That number would not have included the recent passing of Street Sense vendor Kanell Washington or that of the yet-unidentified man the Washington City Paper reported was found in his wheelchair in Columbia Heights after a frigid night.
John McDermott, PFFC co-founder, leaned on his cane and raised his hand to quiet members sitting around a table as they conversed about the cold weather and gripped mugs of hot coffee.
“Let’s get to the first item on the agenda,” McDermott said, “outreach.”
PFFC, a housing and peer-support advocacy group led by current and formerly unhoused people, is raising money for thermal jumpsuits to give to people in need who attend the vigil. This would be a new addition to the hats, socks and sleeping bags the group has handed out in years past.
The Center for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless are also co-sponsoring the event.
Last December, participants walked from Luther Place Church near Logan Circle to Freedom Plaza near the White House holding cards bearing the names of the 41 people known to have died without a home that year. Upon arrival, the participants gathered for dinner and an open mic event, distributed supplies to keep other people in the area warm, slept overnight in a heated tent and walked into the John A. Wilson Building to speak with city council members the following morning.
This year, PFFC has formally invited Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau and David Grosso to speak during the event. Although Nadeau and Grosso spoke last year, only Grosso has confirmed his participation this year.
“It’s important to honor the memories of those who have lost their lives due to a lack of stable housing and regular access to care,” Grosso said in an e-mail to Street Sense. “I also want advocates and the community to know that their elected officials are allies in the fight to end chronic homelessness in the District of Columbia.”
Executive Director Robert Warren suggested that participants again walk through the Wilson Building to visit elected officials. “We need to have people that are actually impacted talking to those councilmembers,” he said.
Nationally, the average life expectancy for a homeless person falls between 48 and 52, more than two decades less than somebody who has a home, according to research conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“The sad thing is that there are so many people who are just trying to hold on so they can die in a home,” Warren said.
PFFC held an individual memorial service in September for Weldon Moore, a close friend of McDermott and a frequent volunteer at Miriam’s Kitchen, who passed away in late August after doctors told him he had stage four pancreatic cancer. McDermott said he thought Moore would still be alive today if he had his own apartment.
Timothy D’Emilio, a PFFC member who attended the last two vigils, said the biggest ailment he sees in his homeless friends is hopelessness.
“We need to recognize the folks that have died in the streets as wake-up calls for the rest of us to fight for housing as a human right,” D’Emilio said. “Nobody should be dying in the streets.”
For more information, you can visit http://pffcdc.org/