Eric was a frequent guest in the early days of the Simpson Men’s Shelter. He was a quiet, somewhat shy Vietnam war veteran and although he pretty much kept to himself, everyone knew and loved him. In the summer of 1984, days had passed since shelter staff and volunteers had seen him. This happened from time to time. No one thought too much of it. A few days later they got the news that Eric’s body had been found by the railroad tracks nearby. He had been beaten to death.
Simpson staff and volunteers had witnessed many people experiencing homelessness who die without anyone honoring their life. Simpson United Methodist’s pastor and shelter staff, volunteers, and Eric’s family members gathered shortly after he was found to honor his life, as well as the lives of a few other people they knew who had died that year. It was an important moment for all, including his family. They were happy to see that he had support and a community in his life. From that point forward, a nearby house that was a transitional home to three men at the time was affectionately referred to by Simpson staff and volunteers as “Eric’s House.”
The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless (MCH) heard that Simpson had held the service and proposed that it become a larger event, including names of as many people as they could gather. In December of 1984, the first official Minnesota homeless memorial was held, launching the collaboration between Simpson and MCH that exists to this day. Unidentified people began to be included throughout the years, as it was presumed that these people were, quite likely, homeless.
In the early years, the memorial was always held on December 21 (the winter solstice, the beginning of winter, and the longest night of the year) to coincide with the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day designated by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The event eventually transitioned to be held on the third Thursday in December, as this proved to be the most well-attended night.
The lighting of an individual candle with the reading of each person’s name was a unique aspect of the Minnesota event and has since been replicated by other memorials. In the early years when funding was especially tight, there were plans to re-use candles from one year to the next, but Carla Gainey, Simpson Executive Director from 1987-1997, was adamant that new candles be purchased every year. “Everyone should have their own candle.” This practice continues to this day.
In the mid 1990s, the march was added to the schedule for the evening. The Shelter Providers Action Association (formed to help combat funding cuts at a time when homelessness was increasing) began organizing the march portion of the memorial to help raise awareness of the issue of homelessness. It was initially a protest but gently grew into a silent vigil.
Each year, marchers carry individual signs with the name, age, and hometown of every person being honored. One of the first years of the march, a Duluth woman travelled to the service. Her mother was homeless and had been murdered. To see her name on a sign was a moving experience for her. This started a tradition of allowing people to take the signs that displayed the name of a person they knew who had died.
In recent years, the reading of the names has been divided into currently and formerly homeless as more and more people are moving into housing. Please read the article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, that further tells the story of homelessness. Click here to read full article
Thursday, December 21, 2017 – Homeless Memorial March and Service
5:00 pm | March & Silent Vigil
Hennepin County Government Center
3rd Avenue South & 5th Street South, Minneapolis
The march will follow 5th Street South westward to Nicollet Avenue and proceed south to 28th Street.
6:30 pm | Service of Remembrance
Simpson United Methodist Church
2740 1st Avenue South, Minneapolis
7:30 pm | Community Meal
Lower level of Simpson United Methodist Church
All are welcome!