People for Fairness Coalition’s seventh annual vigil for the homeless. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

John, age 69. Kevin Chamberlain, age 48. Darryl Finney, age 62. Dana Woolfolk, with the National Coalition for the Homeless, read the names of dozens of Washingtonians who died in 2020 while experiencing homelessness. Sometimes he read only their ages. Other times just their initials. 

Woolfolk listed these individuals during the eighth annual homeless vigil hosted by the People for Fairness Coalition. According to advocates, 74 people experiencing homelessness died this year and 23 of those deaths are related to COVID-19.       

“If you know any of these individuals … remember the good times you shared with them. Just keep that memory because that is the most important part of keeping their story alive,” said Andrew Anderson, the People for Fairness Coalition’s outreach director, at Monday’s vigil. Anderson too is unhoused.

Anderson spoke to the audience through a screen, as had all the speakers. Typically, dozens would gather for the vigil at Luther Place Memorial Church on Thomas Circle. Mourners would conclude the service by carrying an empty coffin that bore the names and ages of unsheltered residents who died that year from the church to Freedom Plaza. Last year, mourners gathered to remember 81 people who died without a home, and this year they gathered over Zoom. Denyse Stuart of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church sang “Amazing Grace” to countless people from her phone.    

“I have that image of the procession with a casket going through the streets. It’s such a powerful one because in part it is a group activity. But it’s such an intimate one and it’s something that we lost during the COVID-19 time,” says Debby Shore of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which provides shelter and services to homeless youth. 

“But in that image is also the symbolism of a community that continues to stand together and support each other even in these most challenging circumstances. We are bearing witness to one another, to each other, and that no one’s passing is in vain,” Shore continued.  

Advocates spoke about how the coronavirus pandemic has only underscored the ailment that is homelessness. It’s also made advocates’ work more challenging. Living in crowded shelters or on the streets was always dangerous, and the coronavirus made it more deadly. Lowell Long, for example, says he was assaulted by a security guard and contracted COVID-19 all while staying at 801 East Men’s Shelter in Congress Heights.

Yet advocates did not see the affordable housing and homeless service investments they’d hoped for in the Council’s fiscal 2021 budget. Now, as the executive weighs its supplemental budget, advocates fear cuts to local nonprofits that serve people experiencing homelessness. DCist reports that at least six organizations—including Casa Ruby and SMYAL—face grant cuts, which could impact everything from day centers to street outreach to staffing. In response to the news, advocates asked Mayor Muriel Bower to reconsider the cuts. 

“While your Administration is considering next steps, we urge that you not repeat the mistakes of the past and stop any efforts to balance the budget by cutting existing social services,” says a letter signed by dozens of local organizations and ANC commissioners. “DC’s commitment to equity means divesting from bloated agencies like MPD and increasing taxes on our highest income earners to help pay for programs and services to support residents’ basic survival.”

During a Monday press conference, Bowser said she is asking every agency—nonprofit partners included—to figure out how they can operate with less money given revenue estimates. “I certainly understand that nobody wants to live with less money,” said Bowser. “But as a government, I’m sure you can understand that is an unsustainable point of view.” —Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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