By Martin Kidston
A small congregation of Missoula residents added light and warmth to the longest night of the year on Wednesday, passing the Winter Solstice with prayer, song and a reflection on the homeless people who have died in the city.
Missoula’s first Homeless Person’s Memorial Day saw the lighting of candles, the reading of names and a vow to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
“This is our first memorial in Missoula to honor and remember our neighbors who have passed away because we were unable to adequately address the tragedy of homelessness,” said Theresa Williams. “I knew many of the people who are on that list of names.”
Williams, the coordinator of Reaching Home with the United Way in Missoula, took to the gazebo on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn and faced a crowd of 50 people who had gathered in the cold and snow. Young and old, they stood in quiet reflection as the bell chimed softly after each name was read.
Scott Garrity was creative, adventurous and curious about people and life. Mary Alice Overaker was an advocate for the homeless. Stephen John “Crow” Nelson was active at the River of Life Church. Mark Stevens was a gentle soul, a son, brother and father of three.
“Their names are an unsettling reminder that even though I’m fighting to prevent a preventable condition that creates homelessness, I get to go home tonight,” said Williams. “Most of us here get to go home tonight. Any death does not have to be – nor should it be – the inevitable outcome of homelessness.”
According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, homelessness significantly elevates one’s risk of illness, injury and death. Regardless of age group, a homeless individual is three times more likely to die than a person with housing.
The average life expectancy of someone facing homelessness is 47 years, the statistics suggest. That’s comparable to the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900. By comparison, an American who is not homeless can expect to live to age 78.
“We are here this evening to say goodbye to a friend – nearly 30 friends, actually,” said Laura Folkwein. “They lived and graced us with their life the best way they knew how. We’re here to celebrate that life. They didn’t leave this world without leaving their mark on it, and they are not forgotten.”
Folkwein, the development associate at the Poverello Center in Missoula, read a eulogy specific to no single person. Rather, it cast a wide net on those who comprise the homeless population – those with ambitions, goals and family.
Those lost were veterans who fought in foreign wars. They were friends, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They were someone’s hero. And they were often overlooked by most of society.
“We will remember what could have been, the hopes and dreams, the plans left behind,” said Folkwein. “Their spirits live on among us. We promise them tonight to do whatever we can to ease the pain and loneliness of others, so not even one more will have to suffer alone.”
Back in the winter of 2011, Missoula Mayor John Engen commissioned a study that acknowledged what many already knew. Too many people in Missoula were without housing, while others were at risk of losing the housing they had.
At the time, roughly 350 cities across the country had launched a plan to end homelessness. Montana did so in 2006, followed by Billings in 2009. Missoula followed suit in 2012 when it launched “Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.”
While some in the community have mocked the effort, or labeled it a failure because it hasn’t ended homelessness in five short years, Engen stands by the goal, as do dozens of advocates across the city who are working for solutions to the local, and national, problem.
“Missoula is a place that can only be great if everyone has an opportunity to enjoy that greatness – if everyone has a full belly and a rich life and warm bed,” Engen said. “Vulnerability is what happens in our society. If we don’t take care of one another, we’re not much of a society.”
Kevin Kicking Woman, an educator and Navy veteran, sang in Blackfeet – a song he called the Going Home Song. His voice rose above the din of traffic rolling by on West Broadway – the buses, an ambulance, and people heading home during the evening rush.
As the crowd lit candles, one woman recounted her own experience being homeless in Missoula. She attributed it to “poorly considered choices,” though that had nothing to do with addiction. Rather, she said, her plans didn’t come together as precisely as she’d expected.
“Life had taken an unexpected turn and I ran out of resources,” she said. “I had a job, skills, a car and phone. What I didn’t have was friends, at least that’s what I discovered when I told people I thought were friends that I was homeless and needed help.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org