National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day takes place each year on Dec. 21 as the winter solstice brings with it the longest night of the year, when the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. Dozens of homeless Madisonians die each year without a funeral, a service, a remembrance of their lives, or even an obituary. This afternoon at 3 p.m. on the Capitol Square, the Longest Night Homeless Persons Memorial Service will remember, honor, celebrate and mourn those lives.
“It’s been a difficult and challenging year. We know that there are homeless folks out there who have died but even gathering the information and names has been a challenge,” Linda Ketcham, executive director of JustDane, tells Madison365. “But we’re going to be there.
The booklet that Ketcham and JustDane puts together for the event – the remembrances of homeless people who have died this past year – unfortunately, is the only obituary for a lot of people being remembered. “And this will be the only formal recognition of their passing,” Ketcham says. “Even with the pandemic, we felt that it was important to gather and to do this safely.”
This is officially the 13th year that Madison has recognized the Longest Night. JustDane (formerly Madison-area Urban Ministry) has been coordinating the event for the last 12 years.
The event usually is brought indoors at some point for interfaith services and dinner and camaraderie. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group will only be gathering outdoors this year.
“This year will be a little different – we kinda call it ‘back to our roots’ because the first nine years it was just an outdoor ceremony,” Ketcham says. ” So, this year it will be just outdoors and we’re asking people to mask and we’ll do our best to social distance.
“We’re bringing a better sound system this year,” Ketcham adds, smiling. “So we won’t have to huddle around the speakers as much.”
The group will gather today at 3 p.m. on Capitol Square at the intersection of East Main, South Pinckney Street and King Street and will hold a brief outdoor service and then proceed around the Capitol led by a horse-drawn hearse.
This gathering place is near the bench where Dwayne Warren’s body was found on June 16th, 2009. Warren, who was experiencing homelessness, died of sepsis, a blood infection that could have been treated with a simple antibiotic prescription. Warren’s death helped bring the community together to create this annual event.
“Dwayne was 38. He had some unmet mental health needs. He was a nice guy,” Ketcham remembers. “Somebody gave him a pair of winter boots earlier that year and he was worried about taking the boots off – he was afraid they would get stolen. Dwayne walked a lot and got sores on his feet from the boots because his feet got sweaty.
“He died of sepsis, which is something a 10-dollar antibody can cure. But Dwayne was leery of health care providers, which a lot of people understandably are, particularly people of color,” she adds. “Unfortunately, one of the outreach teams had actually arranged for a nurse to see him downtown later that day. It was a very tragic and sad death. That’s the reality: people who are experiencing homelessness are so much more vulnerable to everything. We still see too many deaths that are a result of stress and trauma to the body.”
Nationally, the event has been commemorated annually since 1990 and brings attention to the growing tragedy of homelessness across the country. Communities across the nation stand in the cold during the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – with vigils and special events aimed at remembering homeless people.
Each year, JustDane creates memorial cards for each of the individuals remembered at the event, and for those who may have passed and been remembered in previous years. Eventually, Ketcham says, they would like to create a Remembrance Wall that would include these cards and could travel to various locations to serve as a traveling memorial to those we mourn.
“Eventually, we’d also like to establish a website and we will start to put all of the remembrances on that page as they are written so there is a permanent memorial place where people can go to remember someone,” Ketcham says.
Ketcham says that community members can drop off hats, gloves, coats, scarves, long underwear, and socks at First United Methodist all day today, which will be distributed to Madison’s homeless population. Donations can be dropped at First Congregational United Church of Christ at 1609 University Ave.
While today’s service is primarily intended to remember Madison neighbors who were homeless when they died, it is also a place where people who are formerly or currently homeless can remember others that they lost but were unable to attend a funeral or memorial service.
“It’s an important event that we host each year,” Ketcham says. “It’s a powerful event.”