By: Tim Houchen
November 14, 2020 —
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Originally, our Memorial Wall was designed in 2016 to fit 240 names of people that passed away during the year while experiencing homelessness. The layout for each individual slab designates three columns with each column containing 20 names for a total of 60 names per slab. Multiply 60 names by 4 slabs equaling a total of 240 names that could be placed on the memorial each year.
That was in 2016 when the homeless death toll had yet to exceed 200 persons in a single year here in Orange County. The number had been slowly rising since about 2011 or so, but we were closing in on the 200 mark.
2017 marked a year in which 207 persons experiencing homelessness died in Orange County. We surpassed the 200 mark, or dare I say we blew right past it and set a new record. There were an ample number of slots on the memorial wall to accommodate more names, unfortunately.
There was contention in 2018 when a new record number of homeless persons, a total of 244, passed away. Suddenly, we were 4 names in excess of the design of our original layout of the memorial wall.
Adding 4 names was not the difficult part of this particular annual process for me, but understanding that each of the names represents the life of a human being, the total existence of someone that died on our streets without a place to call home, that’s what really bothered me. Many of these people I had known personally and I was devastated more than ever by this.
In 2019, we caught a break. 206 persons lost their lives while homeless in Orange County. Sure, the total was less than the previous 2 years, but how can you find relief in that knowing that more lives could have been saved? Knowing that more could have been done to bring the number of deaths lower yet?
Then 2020 rolled in with its creepy coronavirus. By March there were reports that homeless deaths were increasing and the numbers might be on pace to set a new record. By May there were predictions that homeless deaths in 2020 could hit the 300 mark. The experts told us that there were no indications that coronavirus was causing the increases, but at the same time, no explanations whatsoever were indicated as to how homeless persons were now dying at a higher rate than ever before.
Health experts created a slogan to raise public awareness and flatten the curve of the virus.
“We’re all in this together.” they said
They should have added, “except for homeless folks.”
Sure, the Governor came up with a brilliant plan to house homeless persons in California by putting them up in motels. Certainly there were far more dormant motel rooms across the state than there were homeless persons. Each and every homeless person should have had a place where they could protect themselves from the virus as many did. Instead, the group of persons designated by society as second-class homeless citizens was indeed divided into a third-class consisting of homeless persons that did not qualify for Project Roomkey. They were told by authorities to check in to congregate homeless shelters or risk being cited for camping ordinances. In the middle of a world-wide pandemic?
What about those ad nauseum NIMBY protests surrounding the prospective locations for Roomkey facilities? Those were some sad days.
COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on people around the globe, but no persons have been impacted more than those persons experiencing homelessness. If I could, I would impart the reality of their struggle through COVID-19. In truth, all I can do is ask that you imagine that struggle as if it were you experiencing it yourself.
At the onset of precautions and restrictions resulting from the initial lockdown orders, most public places that allowed homeless persons to use restroom facilities prior to the pandemic were closed down.
There were few places available for homeless persons before COVID, then there were none. It’s likely that far too often a homeless individual has had to take care of his bathroom business much too close to where he and others sleep. There are implications that hygiene on the streets has become more difficult to manage and has certainly fallen below the standards for suppressing a rampant virus, especially if there is no place to wash up after going to the bathroom.
There are other factors that add to the struggle like eating. Volunteer groups that often fed people on the streets either voluntarily discontinued serving meals and in some cases were asked by local authorities to not feed the homeless. For some time, dining in has not been an option. If you can’t walk-up and order while standing in a drive-thru, where do you get your bargain burger?
Panhandling is important for some homeless persons in order to provide income to purchase food. Mid-pandemic and no one wants to roll down their window and risk contracting COVID by giving a buck to a homeless guy holding a sign at the end of a freeway offramp.
There are so many more obstacles for persons experiencing homelessness to negotiate since COVID emerged that there is not enough space for this article to document it. There are so many excuses for our society to deny solutions to end homelessness. Why can’t society get it right? All lives matter. There can be no justice until the very least of us are freed from our binds. Social justice is built from the ground up. Lift up those on the ground first.
And, it’s not near being over yet.
So many of my homeless brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors are dying. It doesn’t seem to bother people enough, at least it doesn’t bother them as much as it bothers me.
So. I ask the question once again.
What would you do?
I’m not talking about adding names to our memorial wall either. I can re-configure the layout to add another column with enough space for the names on the slabs. What I specifically want to know is, what would you do to spare their lives, the lives that belong to the names that appear on our memorial wall?
Thanks to all of the people that showed concern for my immediate and unexplained departure from my duties as a homeless advocate, service provider, publisher, etc. I have been experiencing some ongoing medical issues that have required much of my attention and every bit of strength to overcome. I will now attempt to kickstart my Facebook presence once again. I am OK, again for now. I appreciate the inquiries received regarding my disappearance and I’m ready to return to my work. Thank you.
A new assignment
I was recently elected to serve on the Orange County Continuum of Care Board. I look forward to meeting the challenges that are found at that level of decision-making that is so critical to the system of care that our county provides for persons experiencing homelessness and those who are considered at-risk of becoming homeless.
Many persons have asked about this year’s “Longest Night” event. I have been a lead organizer of this event in recognition of National Homeless Persons Memorial Day in Orange County since 2015.
Due to COVID-19, we will not be able to conduct our traditional program that includes a candle light vigil and a ceremonial recital of the names of homeless persons that passed during the year. We will, however, present a virtual event in partnership with the “Women Drivers Interfaith Group.” The wonderful ladies in this group are skilled professionally at doing these types of events where on the other hand, I am not so much. The event will take place on the same day as usual, December 21st. More details will be upcoming and all official event information will be made available at our “OC Longest Night Memorial” page.
Stay tuned for information regarding an additional program that will broadcast on YouTube and Facebook Live beginning at 1:00 PM on December 21st and will run until the 7:00 PM “Longest Night” broadcast. The all-day program will feature an amazing lineup of music relating to homelessness, interviews, special guests and some surprises too. More info about this soon.
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