The Names: A Year on Minnesota's Mean Streets

Trish Lease

They file in, one by one, snaking through the pews at Simpson United Methodist Church. More than a hundred strong, the group of marchers just spent the better part of an hour walking over cold, slick downtown streets toward the 18th Annual Homeless Memorial Service in south Minneapolis. Many hold white placards starkly emblazoned with black letters. "Roger, 60, St. Paul." "Gail, 46, Minneapolis." "Unknown man, 42, Fillmore County." "Infant girl, Red Wing." They join the hundred or so already seated in the church, who have come to mourn the deaths and celebrate the lives of 94 people who died while living on the streets of Minnesota this year. Some grim perspective is perhaps in order: Consider that in 1993, the last year City Pages wrote about the memorial, the roster of the dead consisted of 11 names.

Tonight is all about the names--or, in some cases, the lack of them. They are written on the placards. They are scrawled on paper in marker and crayon and taped to the unpretentious white walls of the church. The names of these people will be read here, and candles will be lit in their memory. There is a table filled with too many candles, giving off too much heat, for too many deaths that might otherwise have passed without notice.

There is music this Thursday evening, the week before Christmas. Music that swings between serene and celebratory. Jevetta Steele's creamy voice crescendoes with such force that it nearly buckles the church's modest sound system. When she croons the words of "Somewhere over the Rainbow," a woman in the audience wipes away a tear; when she belts out "Lean on Me," the audience sings and claps along.

The drone of a bagpipe kicks off the service, its howls accompanying the marchers as they arrive. The plaintive wails are at once mournful and enraged, and they herald the intertwined purposes of the service: These people are gathered here to remember the dead, but also to call attention to the fact that the ranks of the homeless continue to grow.

Fr. Ed Flahavan, a former pastor at St. Stephen's Catholic Church, pauses for a moment to remember what it was like two decades ago, when Reagan-era policies were just beginning to deepen the plight of poor people across the country. To quell a crushing need, St. Stephen's and other area churches created what they thought would be makeshift "emergency" shelters for the homeless. But the "emergency" has only escalated: It's an ongoing reality for an estimated 8,600 Minnesotans each day. "Twenty-one years later, we sit in a church remembering 100 people who died living on the streets this year," Father Flahavan muses. "It's a shameful thing."

Later, another speaker shares the frustration. Rev. Fred Kennedy Hippchen, a pastor at St. Paul's United Church of Christ, tells of his own experience with homelessness a few years ago. "One of those things that amazes me is how fragile our lives are and how things can change at a moment's notice," Hippchen reflects. "All of you here tonight have come to remember and to celebrate the life of someone who otherwise might be forgotten.

"But remembrance and celebration are not passive spectator sports," he admonishes. "Sometimes outrage is the most honest thing you can express."

One by one, members of the audience make their way to the microphone to remember the people who touched their lives in ways large and small. As is so often the case, the memories shared are composed of fleeting details, the seemingly insignificant snapshots that keep people alive long after they are gone.

Blaine "Woody" Woodward made the coffee at the Dorothy Day Center. Carl Mitchell was trying to get custody of his two-year-old daughter. Timothy Benton was a beautiful person. Shari Owens was a loving mother and grandmother who struggled with addiction and mental illness. Michael Pitstick wore a cowboy hat.

One man gets up to remember William "Tim" Schlosser, who was assaulted September 8 on the Washington Avenue Bridge. He died four days later. "I don't think the people who assaulted him even know they killed him," the man explains. "This wasn't something that made the news. I don't think they knew what they took away from Tim's family."

As he speaks, his simple words drive home the evening's message. "It's a very disheartening thing to look at the list," the man says. "There are so many people that I knew and that I don't think needed to die this year."

After the service, some of the attendees spill downstairs to share a meal at the shelter. Others walk outside, into the biting wind. Still others wait to see if they'll be lucky enough to win a lottery and get a bed in a shelter tonight.

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