On the longest night of the year, caring people all over the United States gather to remember those lost to the ravages of life on the streets in the year before. Each year, here in Colorado Springs, I hope the number of names will be smaller. But so far, it’s a longer list each year.
At the vigil, each name is spoken deliberately so that the impact of that name can sink in. Those attending respond with “we remember.” Name after name. And then, a pause, and those in the crowd begin adding to the list by calling out the names of friends and loved ones who died in the preceding year.
We remember is the all too frequent response.
The death that changed me
I lost a friend that I had been working with just a few years ago in this holiday season. You would have never recognized him as an alcoholic experiencing chronic homelessness. Clean shirt – always ironed, immaculate slacks, crisply creased. No dirt anywhere in spite of the fact that my friend lived in a tent and took all his meals in community soup kitchens. On the Friday before he died he helped decorate the Resource Advocate Program waiting area for Christmas. He swore that if I exposed him for participating in decorating he would make sure that the entire community knew that I was a total and absolute liar. By Monday he was gone and I was changed, devastated and sad beyond words.
A plan for getting off the streets
My friend had a plan to leave the streets. As a matter of fact he was eye-ball deep in the execution of his plan and was three days away from signing a lease to go into an apartment. He had arranged with the VA to go back to college and become financially self-sufficient as a result of his own efforts. His goals were reachable and carefully thought and articulated.
Hypothermia doesn’t ask
But that cold December night, hypothermia didn’t ask my dear friend about his plan. It didn’t ask if he had designed a means of escape from the streets or about his hope for the future. It just came and it took him. And too many others. This year, there have been painful losses among those who experience homelessness in Colorado Springs. Some bright and happy people; some very wounded people who bore the weight of their trauma by numbing with substances. Our community is not the same after losing them. NOR SHOULD IT BE.
The myth revealed
Homelessness-as-a-choice is a myth. People are not choosing the “freedom” of life in a sleeping bag on the streets. Those who look the other way when seeing our brothers and sisters on the street would like to believe that, but it’s not true. The most recent Point in Time Survey revealed close to 250 unsheltered people in Colorado Springs, and I’m pretty sure that 99.9 percent of them would rather live under a roof. That number must decrease. ANY death as a result of homelessness is one too many.
We ARE improving
As a community we are improving and our Continuum of Care is making good progress, but we have a long way to go. The issue and its solutions are complex and deserve a great deal of thought because our friends living on the street have disabling conditions – physical, mental, domestic violence issues and serious substance dependence. But, these are our brothers and sisters if we are to take the Gospel seriously, and they need our help and our courageous efforts on their behalf.
What then, should we do?
You cannot begin to understand the problem and the complexity of the solutions that will solve the issue of long term homelessness in our community without asking what role you can play in building a better and hopeful community. The answer for each of us is to get involved. Be part of the solution so that no more of our friends die on the street. Figure out what God is calling you to do in support of the important role Springs Rescue Mission is playing in caring for “the least of these” and step it up. You have a role to play and the Mission is already preparing the place for you to fulfill that role.