MISSOULA — People gather in cities across the country on or around Dec. 21 — the winter solstice — to mark National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
The date of this event is intentional, as outdoor ceremonies remind us of the hardships those without housing face, especially in the winter months.
Hosted in front of the Poverello Center Tuesday night, employees, volunteers, and community members remembered the lives of 21 people without permanent housing and three Poverello employees and volunteers who died in 2021.
“When you're out here in the cold, a minute is so long, and to just think that there are people without warm coats or warm boots and with no place to go,” reflected Jill Bonny, executive director of the Poverello Center.
Huddled in the snow, an audience attended the Annual Homeless Person’s Memorial and listened as the name of each individual was read aloud by Poverello staff.
"It's an emotional night," said Bonny who knows each person whose name was placed on the fence of the Poverello Center. But one, in particular, leaves a mark on her heart.
"Mike Hamilton, who was a veteran," said Bonny. "Before I was executive director at the Pov, I oversaw all of the veteran programs, and so I worked with him for years and really struggled to get him into housing for years, and a few months before he passed away, he actually was housed, which is wonderful to know, but sad that he didn't get to spend more time in his own home."
Prominent causes of death for those experiencing homelessness include everything from heart disease to substance use, communicable disease or exposure to the cold. Life without permanent housing takes its toll.
“We know that people who are experiencing homelessness for years age faster than people who are living in homes, and so you know, someone who is 55 could have the health problems of someone who is 75.”
To the average Missoulian, a client of the Poverello Center may be just another homeless person, but the memorial reminded a solemn crowd that the names on the wall were mothers and fathers, siblings, veterans and friends. While they might not have had a traditional home, they called “Missoula” home.
Bonny told MTN News that the first step of action people can take in the fight against homelessness is to break stigmas around the crisis and educate themselves.
“There’s this stigma around people who are homeless that they're not working, they’re not trying, but really we have a big percentage of the people that live here who get up every day with 150 roommates. They get up and get dressed and go to work, they’re trying,” said Bonny.
“Rent is expensive, housing is expensive, so understanding the stigma around that and understanding we need more services for mental health and substance use disorders, and care for folks who aren’t at that social security age but really need some extra healthcare.”