Individuals who passed away without the dignity of a home in 2017
Duane “Joey” Henderson
Wilkie “Bill” Woodard
And thirty unnamed residents
December 21st. The winter solstice. I’ve come to look forward to this day with both relief and dread….relief that we have reached the point of maximum darkness and we’ll start squeezing a few more moments of sunlight out of each coming day, and dread that we must once again gather to celebrate the lives and mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters who have passed in 2017 while experiencing homelessness. December 21st holds both promise…and pain.
When I was a kid, my mom received a phone call on the morning of December 21st, 1970, from her older sister, with whom my grandmother – my beloved “Nanny” – lived. Nanny, who had spent the evening of December 20th sitting at the kitchen table with her cigarette, her pilsner glass and her crossword puzzle, went to bed, and then never awoke. She had passed unexpectedly during the night…in the warmth of her own bed, after going through her treasured routines, and, if I know my Nanny, after kissing my aunt and uncle good night and getting down on her knees to ask God to bless us all. It was, in a sense, a perfect, dignified, passing.
There were 45 deaths this year of people who lived unhoused in the nation’s capital that were very far from perfect passings…deaths of women and men who had no kitchen table, no warm bed, no family members to kiss goodnight, and for some, not even a floor to kneel upon for a prayer at the end of the day.
How is it that this continues to happen? Last year, we read out 51 names. In 2015, it was 41. In 2005, there were 34.
How is it, that in this nation’s capital, in this progressive city that has declared itself to be a human rights city, in this community that has committed itself to “making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” how is it that we can continue to let this happen?
Have we become too distracted by hashtags and tag lines and sound bites that we fail to step back and look at the big picture? the picture of displacement, of gentrification, of racism and classism, a picture that has left far too many community members without a place to belong?
Are we too wedded to data and provable outcomes that we forget to look beyond the numbers to the people those numbers represent? If you look at “45” as a percentage of those counted as homeless this year – 7,473 – from a statistical perspective, .06% may not seem so troublesome. Rather, I suggest that we use a measuring tool that instead of calculating percentages, counts 45 community members as the sons and daughters of 45 mothers. A measuring tool that may not be so helpful in crunching numbers for grant reports or RFPs, but which sees 45 cherished beings – brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, co-workers. A measuring tool that also allows us to see in these 45 community members…ourselves.
Until we stop seeing people like Chris Mason, Darius Duncan and Duane “Joey” Henderson as “other” than ourselves, we will continue to gather, year after year. We will shed tears, we will carry coffins, we will bury ashes on the sacred ground that lies just south of this sanctuary, where the ashes of far too many “others” already have been laid to rest. And we’ll say that we don’t want to have to do this anymore.
Until we stop treating people like Galaxina Robinson, James King and Lisa Jennings as “other,” we will continue to promote solutions that don’t really solve; we will rationalize funding that falls short of truly meeting human needs; and we’ll define away our responsibility, determining that “the other” is ineligible, or not a resident, or unworthy of our help because of some personal transgression.
But when we see in Mark Jenkins, Michael Kelly and Michael Dunne a reflection of ourselves, or of our children, or our friends, or our Nanny, or our God, we have the potential to change everything.
We have witnessed recently at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue some extreme examples of seeing people-in-need as the “other.” We can, I believe, as the community represented by the government in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, have a different way of looking at the world…and more importantly, a different way of being in the world…a way that makes us grow impatient – and yes, maybe even intolerant – when our traveling companions on this very long journey towards justice stray from the path towards an inclusive community, where housing is a human right. It’s a way of being that may marginalize us, but that’s because we choose to stand with our neighbors who have been pushed to the margins; it’s a way of being that may put us in conflict with what is politically expedient or financially viable.
But it is the way that we must be, if we accept that Mweane Sikuzote, Norman Anders and “MS” are no longer the “other.” When we stop seeing Nick and Joseph Watkins and Wilkie “Bill” Woodard as “other,” and we stop thinking about what they did, or didn’t do, to land them where they are, when we focus instead about we can do to respond…perhaps then we will have inched just a little closer to a day when we can focus on the promise of December 21st, and not the pain.
A day of growing light, when we will gather to mourn no more.
The Legal Clinic ends this year with immense gratitude for our traveling companions on the journey towards a more just DC: our clients, our advocacy partners, our volunteers and donors, those in government who share our vision, and our neighbors who are working to forge a more welcoming community. We wish you all a joyful holiday and a new year blessed with justice and peace.