Hundreds gather to honor those who died homeless

On the longest night of the year, a crowd of about 200 gathered at the Baltimore Inner Harbor Amphitheater. They stood before a display of well worn shoes, most of which held a flickering votive candle. Each shoe was tagged with a name of one of the 111 people who had died homeless in the city this year.

"Each of these shoes will no longer be worn," said Robin Henry, a social work intern with Health Care for the Homeless. "I hope people can just pause here for a minute to remember those who died without secure housing."

Rain fell intermittently as speakers took turns at the dais and solemnly intoned 111 names and acknowledged that many more likely died unknown to the agencies trying to help them.

After each name, the crowd promised, "We will remember." After a few names, there were memories to share.

James drove a tractor trailer for about 50 years until age caught up with him. CC made great coffee at the AA meetings and died in a traffic accident. And Francis — his friends found him dead on a downtown bench a block away from Harborplace.

"I knew Francis with no last name," said Angela Purnell of Baltimore. "I used to see him at the church supper every Monday night. I come here every year to remember him and all the others. If I don't remember these homeless, I will be hurting for the rest of my life."

The city joined groups in Towson, Bel Air and across the nation in National Homeless Persons Memorial Day services that have been set for more than two decades on Dec. 21 to recognize the plight of those without shelter.

Tammy and Gary Green, who live downtown, brought their 19-month-old son to the assembly.

"The whole family needs to understand the importance of taking care of each other," Gary Green said.

In the city, the numbers of homeless deaths continue to grow, while officials are working on a 10-year plan to end homelessness. In 2009, the city recorded 45 homeless deaths. The number nearly doubled last year to 87 and has reached 111 this year.

"We are certainly not going in the right direction," said Julia Hartenstein, a social services case manager for Paul's Place in West Baltimore and organizer of the city's observance for the fourth year. "We are remembering more people this year than at any time in the past."

The ecumenical service included Christian and Jewish prayers, stirring hymns, an official proclamation from the city, a poem penned by one former homeless man and a call to action by another.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke asked the crowd to recall the homeless "as friends who have paid the ultimate price for our nation's failure."

Lloyd Simon once stood on a busy street corner waving a "God bless" sign with one hand and extending a cup to passing motorists with the other hand.

"Take a second as you go by and look us dead in the eye," said Simon, who volunteers at Paul's Place.

Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of BUILD — Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a neighborhood organization — spoke of the surrounding bright lights, gaily decorated shops and shoppers, rushing by, laden with packages. Then, he spoke of all the people who have found no place at the inn, much like Mary and Joseph in biblical times.

"Everyone deserves a place," he said. "We didn't make room for these people we honor tonight. We haven't made room in our lives, our institutions, our budgets. Stand with your brothers tonight and say we can do better."

Rabbi Martin Siegel, who leads a congregation in Columbia, told the gathering that just by remembering and calling out the names, they had given meaning to all those who died.

Wendell Muldrow, who spent three years homeless, said, "May you leave this place troubled by the memory of these people. May you work for affordable housing and access to healthcare."

Is he still homeless? "Not anymore," he said, smiling broadly. "I have a place!"