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How Austin’s Annual Homeless Memorial Service Began

NatureComing up next week, November 14-21, is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, observed throughout the country. In Austin, Texas, the week starts off with the Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service, an opportunity for friends and anyone who cares to pay their respects to those who are no longer with us. At House the Homeless, you can find complete information about this year’s memorial, along with the recollections and photos from last year’s Memorial Sunrise Service.

Yesterday, November 11, was the official publication date of Looking Up at the Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell. This book tells us why we should all be fighting for the Universal Living Wage, and gives the history of Richard R. Troxell’s commitment to housing the homeless. It includes many stories commemorating members of the homeless community who have been lost.

Some say the most moving story in the book is that of Diane Malloy, who sought a temporary roof over her head at the Salvation Army shelter with her fiancé, Jim Tynan. Diane had suffered from a persistent cough for weeks, but couples weren’t allowed at the facility, so they were turned away. Somebody told them about a dry creek bed that would be a semi-protected place to stay in.

But rain came, bringing a flash flood, during which Diane had disappeared. Jim looked for her all over town, and, by the time he met Richard, the sick woman had been missing for three days. Richard got his kayak and the two men searched the creek, and found Diane’s drowned body. Then followed some unpleasant hours with the police. Richard says,

Apparently, Jim Tynan had made yet another judgment error. When he had reported Diane’s disappearance, he had been honest and told the detective that they were homeless — big mistake. Had he left that one detail out, the police would have been looking for her. We would have heard that the boy scouts, the girl scouts, the water rescue team, and the police had been searching for a young woman who may have become a drowning victim… Instead, they never looked.

Diane Breisch Malloy had been an employed citizen, working for 10 years with the phone company, but after using up all her sick leave she was let go. Two months later, she was dead.

Richard writes that since his tour of duty in Vietnam, he had been concentrating more on life than on death. But Diane’s death was a “wake up and smell the coffee” moment. Thinking back, he realized that in the last three years, he knew of 23 people experiencing homelessness who had died. And that was the beginning of the Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service, first held in 1992. This is its 18th year, with more names added every year to the roll of the deceased.

This was told to me as an example of homeless humor. It’s a joke a with a real punchline:

‘What does the street person do when he gets sick?’
‘He dies.’

In an effort to prevent as much needless death as possible, House the Homeless carries out an annual health survey in Austin. The 2010 survey was filled out by 85 females, 408 males, and 8 transgender persons. The results were not good. In this group of people experiencing homelessness, over 200 had high blood pressure, more than 120 had diabetes, more than 100 suffered from arthritis, and nearly 50 were subject to seizures. More than 80 had cancer, and more than 80 were brain-injured. Among the respondents, there were 175 diagnosed cases of mental illness. That is a lot of care needed, in just one city. And a lot of human misery.

If the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is an unfamiliar concept, maybe you will feel inspired to start preparing for next year’s Week in your town. The National Coalition for the Homeless and National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness offer a downloadable 31-page PDF file called “Resolve to Fight Poverty.”

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Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “HTH Health Survey Results 2010 for Austin, Texas,” HousetheHomeless.org
Image by jurvetson, used under its Creative Commons license.