Honouring the Forgotten on the Longest Night of the Year

Under the twinkling Christmas lights of Olympic Plaza downtown by the skating area, I joined a group of about one hundred Calgarians who came out on the longest night of the year. We came to honour the people who have passed away on our city streets while living homeless.

Like many memorial services, there was coffee, hot cocoa and cookies for everyone.  As I said hello to a few people standing around me, you could hear the C-train, buses and vehicles passing on the street.  I could also hear children laughing as they skated to the music of the holiday season, Christmas tree lights changed colours.  It was not a typical setting for a memorial but certainly an important one.  Many of the people who passed away and were being remembered were not considered part of mainstream society.  They often didn’t enjoy the benefits of the holiday season. They were considered the forgotten and homeless by many and a sadness came over me as I considered that fact.
Then a young man started the drumming and I heard many of my friends and loved ones speak though a megaphone. They shared the names of individuals who have passed away and they told their touching and personal stories of homelessness, addiction and life on the streets… sometimes those stories included death.
I glanced over to see the lights shaped like teardrops that are strung across Olympic Plaza.  I thought of all the tears we shed on this evening for those who have passed away from homelessness and it weighed heavy on my mind.  I’m glad we came to remember them at this time of year. I also couldn’t help but think of the holes in the hearts of loved ones that are left behind, dealing with loss and many experiencing the same fear today of dying alone on the streets.  How sad that empty lost feeling is when we think about those who have lost.

It’s something that never really goes away. Yet, there we were shedding tears for the forgotten concealed by the darkness with city sounds and holiday cheer echoing just beyond our gathering space.

We must remember them. Their trauma, their struggles and their stories need to be told. Some lived in
foster care at a young age, many experienced racism and discrimination, some struggled with addictions, mental health problems, poverty, abuse and loneliness. How lost and alone they must have felt with no job and no place to call home.

But, yet our vigil brought forth hope. I saw compassion and concern for others as we gathered together to honour the loss, pain and full humanity of those who have passed on.

I have a home. I have a voice. I have opportunity and a will to make a difference. As I thought about that, I was filled with hope. Many years ago, I lived in a shelter. I had to rely upon the compassion of others. There were no guarantees. I was vulnerable. Today, I am thankful to be one of the fortunate ones. But, my story could’ve been different.

That’s why I wanted to be here to honour the people we have lost on the longest night of the year. It helped to remind me how blessed I am and to honour those who have not been so fortunate.  It was a humbling experience to be part of this evening and one that I will remember over this holiday season. I counted my blessings just as I counted and read the names of the people our city has lost to homelessness.

How easy it could be for any of us to be named among them? My hope this coming year is that we remember how poverty weakens and threatens our communities and our neighbors. It hurts all of us.

Today, as our economy struggles and the worries among us grow, I think more people in our city are realizing that we are all in this together. Our communities can be stronger and our people more empowered when we understand the problems that affect us and work together to fix them.

That’s why I think ending homelessness is more possible and perhaps an even closer reality than we may think.  Will you be part of the solution and help people who face poverty and homelessness in our community? – Holly

Holly DeSimone is the social media coordinator with Vibrant Communities Calgary.


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