Last night, for the nineteenth time in as many years, San Franciscans assembled in front of City Hall for the Interfaith Memorial Service For All Our Homeless Dead, organized by Reverend Glenda Hope with SF Network Ministries, along with the Coalition On Homelessness. Half a dozen laypeople and religious leaders — a rabbi; a Zen Buddhist nun; a housing activist; a Franciscan sister (my boss and roommate, Carmen); and more — presented poems and eulogies, mourning the dead and calling for justice for the living. Alternating with the speeches, one person from a given neighborhood would read aloud a list of names: the recorded deaths of homeless people in that area, in 2009. I think there were between 50 and 60, maybe more. A singing bowl rang after each name spoken, including, hauntingly, a few nameless: John Doe Number 64 (ding), John Doe Number 67 (ding), John Doe Number 95 (ding) . . .
Evidently, over the years it’s become increasingly difficult or complicated to access information on homeless mortality. In addition, the deaths of people living in single-resident occupancy housing (or SRO’s — basically hotel rooms) are not recorded. So the actual death toll among the very poor or destitute is far greater than our reading reflected.
A man sang in a beautiful soprano; the lists of names were ceremonially burned. All told, about 80 people gathered in the cold near-rain. And though the memorial itself was lovely, the most moving part for me was knowing that this frail reverend, emceeing in a barely audible voice, has faithfully assembled people here on every winter solstice since 1980. Almost twenty years of bearing witness this way, in this same place.