Candles flickered in the dark outside the Baltimore County courthouse after the sun went down Saturday, the beginning of the longest night of the year.
“God, open our eyes to see, and our hearts to care,” the group assembled there prayed aloud.
They were there to remember the 42 people who died in the county this year while homeless. Earlier, the group had gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church on Allegheny Avenue for a service in their honor.
The remembrance was part of the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, held annually on the first day of winter in communities across the country.
"This is our way of recognizing, to make sure they are not forgotten,” said Megan Goffney, president of the coalition Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless and the director of program operations for the Community Assistance Network, which runs the county’s largest shelters.
Inside the church, decorated with red poinsettias for Christmas, two women read the first names of all those known to have died. Other participants offered prayer and poems during the service, before a closing song of “Lean on Me.”
Longtime Rodgers Forge resident Robert Williams was among the attendees. He founded an outreach called CALM, which stands for compassion, aid, love and mercy. Williams said he raises money to help local nonprofits and distributes care packages of items such as socks, hand warmers and snacks.
“We all face adversity," he said. “Some have greater adversity than others in their lives.”
Last year, 6,576 people in Maryland were counted as homeless, with the most in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, according to the Maryland Interagency Council on Homelessness’ annual report. That information is based on “point-in-time” estimates, which measure homelessness during the last 10 days of January each year.
But service providers across the state reported far more people had experienced homelessness at some point during the year — more than 31,300, according to the report.
The “point-in-time” data undercounts people experiencing homelessness because it only accounts for those who are staying in shelters and on the streets — not people who might be “couch surfing” or staying in abandoned buildings, said Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore.
In the city, advocates planned an evening commemoration at Preston Gardens park downtown for the national memorial day. Last week, Health Care for the Homeless staff and clients prepared paper hearts bearing the names of homeless people who died in the city this year — 182 in all — to display.
Lindamood said organizers of the city event also planned to honor the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died in October and pushed for greater access to health care for vulnerable people.
“His name will be read as well because he did so much to advance and support the work to address homelessness," Lindamood said.
The annual commemoration aims to not only honor those who lost their lives, but also “to remember why people died," Lindamood said.
People experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than those who have stable residences, according to Health Care for the Homeless. Their average life expectancy is 48 years.
“People have passed away because homelessness itself marks the failure of just about every public system imaginable,” Lindamood said. “The gap between the very, very wealthy and the very, very poor has only continued to widen."
Keenan Jones, the homeless services administrator for Baltimore County, said he has seen people thrust into homelessness after an emergency surgery or job loss.
“They are people,” he said. “They just had the misfortune of being homeless.”
Advocates said they wanted to draw attention to the range of people affected by homelessness.
"You have folks who are homeless who are one year old,” Goffney said. “You have babies who are homeless. It’s people who are at various points in their life, and they need support.”