Vigil remembers homeless who died this year - Albuquerque Journal

Vigil remembers homeless who died this year

Wallace Mills never met Alfredo, whose name in large handwritten letters was on a sign that Mills carried Wednesday during a one-mile march from Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless to The Rock at Noon Day, where a memorial service was held.

All that Mills knows of Alfredo is that he was one of 55 homeless people who died during 2016.

Mills and others in the crowd of nearly 100, many of them homeless themselves, carried the signs with the names of those lost to the streets as part of the annual Albuquerque Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil.

Since 2011, Mills, 35, has experienced two episodes of homelessness. He now has a home and a job but participates in the annual march because “a lot of homeless people don’t get any kind of memorial or service when they die, so this is a way of honoring them,” he said.

Rafael Reyes of Las Cruces, left, and Kendall Lujan of Albuquerque look at handmade tiles bearing the name of homeless people who died in years past. The Homeless Memorial Wall is located at the rear of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless at First and Mountain NW. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
Rafael Reyes of Las Cruces, left, and Kendall Lujan of Albuquerque look at handmade tiles bearing the name of homeless people who died in years past. The Homeless Memorial Wall is located at the rear of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless at First and Mountain NW. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Danny Whatley, director of The Rock at Noon Day, said, “We do this on the winter solstice, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, as a tribute to those who are surviving these long nights on the street, and to honor those who have lost that battle.”

For the past 25 years, communities around the country have held memorial vigils on the winter solstice in honor of their own homeless.

Standing in the rear courtyard of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, Whatley noted the handmade tiles cemented to the building’s exterior wall, 300 or so, each with the name of a homeless person who died in years past. It’s named the Homeless Memorial Wall, and Whatley couldn’t help but notice that “we’re running out of wall space.”

“You can’t come to this wall and be in the business that I’m in and not shed a tear or two,” he said.

Sitting in the day room at The Rock at Noon Day, marcher Rebekah Najar, 54, was also brought to tears. Previously homeless in Grants and later in Albuquerque, she eventually found shelter at the home of a resident who gave her a room in exchange for doing yard work.

“I carried a sign with the name Michael. I didn’t know Michael, but I know it could have been my name on the sign,” she said, crying softly. “I held the sign up as high as I could because no matter what we wear or how we look or live, everybody deserves a voice.”

For the past two years, Dana Ward, 38, has been sleeping in a tent that he sets up at various places around the city. Accompanied by his pit bull, Porsche, he marched and carried a sign, but his thoughts were with two street friends who died this year, one of diabetes and the other of congestive heart failure.

“We need to keep an eye out for each other and be there for one another because we’re all family,” he said.

People who have been homeless for protracted periods of time die on average 20 years sooner than people who have never experienced homelessness, said Anita Cordova, director of development and planning at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless.

Among the leading causes of homelessness are the scarcity of affordable housing, the absence of a living wage and access to health care, and domestic violence, Cordova said.

Health Care for the Homeless sees an average of 4,200 people in its various medical programs annually, and another 2,800 in its outreach programs.

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