Sidney Knighton could have been one of the 88 - the homeless men and women who died this year in Baltimore.
It could have been any of us, in a society where so many count on their next paycheck for survival. That was the message last night at the annual Homeless Persons' Memorial Day vigil at War Memorial Plaza, where a crowd of nearly 100 held hands, touched shoulders and told one another, "It could have been me."
No job. No money. And not a clean pair of pants to fit his 6-foot-4-inch frame, Knighton said, he sleeps on the stairs of a downtown building and keeps clean using a McDonald's restroom, where he ate his most recent meal of two cheeseburgers and fries on Wednesday afternoon.
Fresh out of prison in Pennsylvania, he came to the city in September.
"I came basically on faith," said Knighton, 51. "I just really want a place to stay."
With the grandeur of the Christmas tree outside City Hall as a backdrop and within sight of Knighton's sleeping place, the crowd listened as church bells rang 88 times to remember the dead - society's least fortunate.
"We're here today to honor those who died in desperation, who died in loneliness, who died helpless," said Jeff Singer, president of Health Care for the Homeless, a Baltimore group that organized the local memorial in an event held in cities across the country for the past 16 years on the first day of winter and longest night of the year.
The air was cool, but the live music - a guitar, drums, a saxophone - played by members of the drug-recovery program I Can't We Can, roused the crowd to praise Jesus in song.
Ashley Biggs, 19, a student at Loyola College, explained: "We're trying to remember them and give them what every other person who dies gets."
City Council members James B. Kraft, Mary Pat Clarke and Helen L. Holton read the 88 names, and Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, offered a Bible message.
"Giving is not your chance to bless someone," Cheatham said. "It's God's chance to help you."
Knighton, the homeless man from Easton, Pa., wore boots, a burgundy snow hat and black gloves donated by a church. From the branches of a tree near where he sleeps, he hangs the four blankets and a sleeping bag he keeps to stay warm.
Talking to a reporter after the ceremony, he said that his father died in 1975, and his mother in 2002, and that as an only child he has no family.
"I wanted to get on the mike and say a few things: A lot of times I walk around. I say, 'Hi, how you doing?' People look at you like you're the scum of the earth or something. I would never hurt anyone."
He said he has no Christmas plans.
On Sunday, he said, he will walk to Gay Street near an underpass where a woman has promised to bring gifts.
Homeless death toll
The following 88 people were known by Baltimore homeless service providers to have been homeless in 2006. Some died of chronic illness or acute conditions not treated in time. Some died on the streets or while staying in emergency or transitional shelters. Some spent the last few months of their lives in their apartments. Some were able to reconnect with family and friends before they died. Most died alone. The list was compiled by Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore for Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, which was yesterday.
Claudia Aguado; Andre Anderson; Brian Anthony; Antoinette Bailey; Michelle Banks; Ernest Barber; Michelle Billings; Jerrell Blandon; Stephanie Bolger; Carlo Bona; Michael Boyer; Tonya Bradford; Tonya Branch; Theodore Brunt; John Buscemi; Jacqueline Mae Burton; William Cobb; Michael Coco; Ramone Deloatch; Jonathan Dikoff; Willie Eams; Joseph Foster; Robert Frazier; Allen Gill; Dexter Hayes; Mark Henry; Jerome Heuisler; Ernest Hickman; David Hicks; August Hisker; Robyn Hopkins; Keith Horton; Jackie Howard; Ralph Howard; David Huff; Robert Hunt; Darrell Jackson; Frank Jackson; James Johnson; Joseph Johnson; Raymond Johnson; Robert Jones; Darnell Knight; Jerry Knuckles; Allen Lewis; Charles Lewis; Alvin Loudermilk; John Magruder; Sheri Mathes; Zachary Matthews; Wayne McCray; Cleveland Melvin; Dale Miller; Annette Mitchiner; Dorothy Moore; George Neiberlein; Patrick Nolan; Dorman Osborne; William Pinkerton; Antonio Plenty; Darylene Pratt; Robert Procopio; Saburah Rahman-Bey; Mary Revels; Robert Roche; Rafael Rodriguez; Willie Savage; Donna Sheppard; Michael Siebert; Kimberly Skyers; David Smith; Aisha Stevenson; Reginald Stevenson; Ronald Stewart; William "Rickie" Stokes; Robert Sturmer; Clifton Tull; Clarence "Tex" Tyson; Kimberly Unglesbee; Waymond Washington; William Washington; Justin Welch; Isaac White; Ernest Williams; Ronald Williams; Tommy Woolridge; "John Doe"; "Jane Doe"