The winter months are the hardest of the year for the unhoused community, and tonight is the longest night of the winter. As they have for more than a decade, a collaboration of churches and social service organizations will gather to remember those lost to homelessness.
This year’s Longest Night Homeless Persons Memorial Service will be held today at 3 p.m. at the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will only be a gathering outside, on the Capitol Square at the intersection of East Main, South Pinckney Street and King Street. A brief outdoor service will be followed by a processional around the Capitol led by a horse-drawn hearse.
Linda Ketcham, executive director of JustDANE, talked with Madison365 about the importance of this memorial service
“This is a national event. So often people who are experiencing homelessness, they often have chronic health conditions,” said Ketcham. “With the added stress of living on the streets, they’re more likely to be victimized than they are to be any kind of perpetrator of any offense. They’re more vulnerable in terms of health, and often, because of homelessness, or stress, can be maybe disconnected and cut off from friends and family they lost track of.
“Here locally, it’s our attempt to make sure that all of our neighbors who are unhoused or who died over the past year are remembered … and that we celebrate their lives,” Ketcham added. “That we grieve their loss, and that we offer a place where the people who cared about them, their friends, family, people from agencies that worked with them, can kind of come together and grieve and comfort one another.”
The gathering place is near the bench where 38-year-old Dwayne Warren’s body was found on June 16, 2009. Dwayne was experiencing homelessness and died of sepsis, a blood infection that could have been treated with a simple antibiotic prescription. His death prompted Madisonians who knew him to draw more awareness to the issue of homelessness in the community and nationwide.
“(Dwayne’s death) really kind of prompted (this event), because we’d had discussions prior to that,” Ketcham. said. “I had read about his death, and I had read that there was a gentleman Todd Hunter, who was an attorney in town, who had befriended Dwayne, who was trying to put together a memorial service. he knew him because he worked down by the Capitol, and over the years had developed a friendship and. We reached out to Todd and some other congregations and put together a funeral service memorial service for Dwayne. At that point, then we said, we need to be part of this national effort, for the longest night, so we started planning. Every year since then, since December 2009, we’ve come together downtown.”
Ketcham hopes that Madisonians understand the importance of this event and what it represents.
“It really is our hope that it not only increases community awareness of the level and the struggle and the stress and damage that being homelessness causes, in terms of the impact on people experiencing it,” said Ketcham. “But I do hope that it is a place where members of the community, whether housed or unhoused, people who work in agencies that know the people who have died, that it is a place where we can come together and grieve and comfort one another. I think that that is something that the service offers. it’s somber, and yet, every year I’m so happy to see how many people come and participate and want to make sure that everybody’s life is celebrated and remembered.”
This event is held by JustDANE, First United Methodist Church, First Congregational United Methodist Church of Christ, and Lakeview Lutheran Church. Donations of warm socks, long underwear, scarves, gloves, and hats can be dropped at First United Methodist Church, which is located at 203 Wisconsin Avenue in Madison.