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Sadly, dozens of people die in Madison without a home, a funeral, a service, a remembrance of their lives or even an obituary. The “Longest Night: National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service” is an opportunity to remember, honor, celebrate and mourn those often-invisible people in our community who have passed away.

Houseless individuals, members of local faith communities and representatives from social service agencies, as well as the general public, will come together Thursday, Dec. 21, 3 p.m., for “Longest Night: National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service” to remember and honor people who died without shelter in Dane County and elsewhere this year. Dec. 21 is the longest night of the year.

This is the officially the 10th year that Madison has recognized the Longest Night. Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM) has been coordinating the event for the last nine years.

“The first event was held in 2008 by Donna Asif, a community activist, and it was held at Grace Episcopal Church,” MUM Executive Director Linda Ketcham tells Madison365. The following year, a homeless man named Dwayne Warren was found dead on a marble bench outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in June of 2009. “We just started recognizing that we needed to do more. We worked with local congregations and other community groups and we decided to plan an annual event that lifts up and remembers those without permanent housing who died over the past year.”

Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry
(Photo by Hedi Rudd)

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 Wednesday’s winter solstice – the longest night of the year – with vigils and special events aimed at remembering homeless people.

Sometimes people who aren’t aware that MUM has been doing this will submit names of people who have died in the past who never had a funeral and whose lives were not really remembered.

“People who are homeless are really vulnerable from the effects of living on the street and the kind of stress it puts on your body,” Ketcham says. “Sometimes ties have been severed and family members may not even know that they have died. There can be very little recognition or celebration of their lives, so we want to do our very best to make sure that every member of our community that dies is remembered and their lives are celebrated in some way. This is our attempt to do that.”

The event begins each year by the marble bench where Dwayne Warren’s body was found on June 26th, 2009. Over the years, the event has grown. It initially started with a 30-40 minute service on the Capitol Square. The last few years, Wayne and Nancy Osterhaus and their Clydesdale team, along with an antique Hearse, have made their way in a funeral procession around the Capitol Square. The day includes music, prayer, reflections and remembrances of neighbors who have died this year and who were homeless.

Wayne and Nancy Osterhaus and their Clydesdale team at a previous “Longest Night: National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service” around the Capitol Square

“We’ll follow the horses and go down to First United Methodist Church for a light meal where people can have fellowship,” Ketcham says. “At 5 p.m., there will be an interfaith service that focuses on light and healing and it looks at homelessness from a broader lens – LGBTQ youth are more likely to be unaccompanied; they’ve been kicked out of their homes by their parents when they came out. People who are immigrants who are not able to find housing.

“We look at our broader community and discuss how all these dots connect,” Ketcham continues. “I think it’s really important that we cross faith traditions and we also look at some of the underlying systemic things lead to people being homeless in our city and our country.”

Numerous events are being planned throughout the United States for Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, on or around December 21st, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

Ketcham says she was recently speaking with somebody at Madison Metropolitan School District and that they have identified over 800 school kids who are homeless so far this school year, and that doesn’t count siblings too young to be in school. Ketcham estimates that there are over 3,000 homeless in Madison right now.

“Parents and children – members of families – comprise the largest percentage of that number. A lot o people don’t realize that,” she says. “The average age of a homeless person in Dane County is 9 years old.”

The Longest Night Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service has remembered infants and children who have died homeless in the past.

“Children are born into homelessness in our community. Mothers are discharged from the hospital back out onto the streets and there is not a safety net for them during the daytime,” Ketcham says. “We have infants in our community who have died. That toll that homelessness can take on your body is incredible.”

Community members dine together after a previous “Longest Night: National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service.”

The Longest Night Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service honors people who have died from infants to people in their 60s and 70s. “What I’m always struck by when we put together the memorial book of collective names is that most of the people [that die homeless] are in their 40s and 50s,” Ketcham says. “It really takes a toll on your body … that stress and the unmet health needs.”

Some years they’ve had as many as 25 names remembered at the annual service, Ketcham says, and that it reminds us that every year members of our community – brothers and sisters, sons, fathers, husbands, wives and children – die while they are homeless.

Ketcham says that community members can drop off hats, gloves, coats, scarves, long underwear, and socks at First United Methodist all day long on Thursday, Dec. 21. “We will divide them among the shelter agencies and we will also take them over to The Beacon so they can get them to the people who need them most,” Ketcham says. “These things are always needed.”

Individuals who would like to add a name to the list of those to be remembered at “Longest Night: National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service” can do so by calling Linda Ketcham at Madison-area Urban Ministry at 608-256-0906 or 608-206-6302 or names can be emailed to linda@emum.org.

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.

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