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Homeless Memorials — Bring the Numbers Down

MemorialOn Sunday, November 18, an important 20-year tradition continued in Austin, TX, as residents gathered in a park at dawn for prayer and song, and the reading of this year’s homeless casualty list. The annual Homeless Memorial acknowledges the men, women, and children experiencing homelessness who have died in the city throughout the past 12 months.

This year, the list held more than 140 names. Always, “Taps” is played and some years, there is a visual aid, with each deceased person represented by a hat. House the Homeless shares a beautiful album page of photos from previous observances. The touching story of how the Memorial began is recounted in Looking Up at the Bottom Line, written by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless (100% of the book sales go toward ending homelessness).

This year, three City Council members attended, and the keynote speaker, fiercely committed activist Brigid Shea, expressed regret that the recent election defeated an affordable housing bond. Another speaker specifically commemorated the veterans. House the Homeless co-founder Cecilia Blanford recalled a previous Memorial where a member of the crowd was upset by the Bible quotation about how the poor will always be with us. But, she quickly reminded the angry man, it doesn’t say the rich will always be with us.

The anecdote was presciently ironic, considering the disruption that started a few minutes later and continued through much of the ceremony. As in any city that lives off tourism, arrangements are often made more for the pleasure of affluent visitors than to accommodate the needs of the inhabitants. Auto racing took place at a track near Austin on the same day as the Memorial, and Richard says, “As we were reading the names of the citizens who died in poverty in Travis County, a helicopter stopped over our heads to allow his client to take in the view of the city.”

Surely, no disrespect was intended. The two events just happened to coincide. But how symbolic! While Americans down on the ground took part in a tribute to their fallen friends and neighbors, other Americans hovered over the ceremony in a noisy, expensive toy, sightseeing, or perhaps waiting for clearance to land downtown for a nice breakfast in a classy restaurant.

One of the people lost this year was the charismatic Leslie Cochran, the homeless activist and three-time mayoral candidate whose Wikipedia page characterizes him as “the man who personified ‘Keep Austin Weird.’” Cochran once appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” and his memorial service this spring was attended by hundreds of local residents. By official decree, every March 8 in Austin from now on will be “Leslie Day.”

You can see (and hear) the whole Nov. 18 Homeless Memorial service via Ustream, and there was a march afterward, and a noon gathering at City Hall to focus on the fact that there are about 4,000 Austin citizens experiencing homelessness, competing for 607 shelter beds.

There are of course Homeless Memorials in other American cities. San Francisco’s, organized by Project HOPE and the community-based nonprofit organization Anka, took place on November 9. A press report quotes Anka’s regional director Shayne Kaleo:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, ‘Everyone is precious, everyone matters’ — that is the spirit that the Project HOPE Homeless Memorial embraces, and the mentality we want the public to remember when thinking about the hundreds of men and women facing homelessness every year in our community.

Recently, House the Homeless discussed one of the wrinkles in the system that worsens homelessness, the custom of discharging medical patients to the streets. Subsequently, The Huffington Post invited Dr. Kelly Doran to illuminate this problem, which she described with terrifying specificity and deep compassion. Dr. Doran quotes a recent study which found that nearly 70% of homeless patients spend their first night after discharge from the hospital in a shelter, which is at least a place.

Even more alarming, the research shows that 11% of discharged patients don’t even find shelter space, but spend their first night after hospital discharge on the streets. And even if they have a place to sleep, shelter regulations send them onto the streets all day — mothers with newborns; confused elders who forget to take their meds; post-op patients in great pain who are often forbidden from even resting on park benches. Dr. Doran says:

Ignoring the issue simply creates more expensive problems in the future. Patients who leave the hospital and are homeless cycle through a revolving door of costly, inefficient and dangerous care from the hospital to the streets or shelter and then back again… Hospitals could be part of the solution by breaking the cycle of homelessness rather than perpetuating that cycle. Ideally, homeless patients would be discharged to supportive housing rather than back to homelessness. Another option is medical respite programs, which have been started in approximately 50 locales throughout the U.S…

Please sign the petition demanding that we “Discharge No One Into Homelessness,” and have a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday, keeping in mind the many Americans who don’t have quite so much to be thankful for.

Media Bonus
A classic of a peaceful protest — Thanksgiving at the Bank of America, with Reverend Billy Wirtz, Occupy Wall Street, and Picture the Homeless.

By the way, Looking Up at the Bottom Line is also available for the Kindle and the Nook.

Reactions?

Source: “Memorial Service Honors the 35 Homeless Men and Women Who Passed Away,” In Contra Costa, SFGate.com, 11/09/12
Source: “Hospitals Should Never Discharge Homeless Patients to the Streets,” The Huffington Post, 11/12/12