By Chris Stone
As they walked downtown, hundreds of homeless people, including children, carried shoes that symbolized their friends and community members. They didn’t want them forgotten.
While 111 deceased homeless people were remembered, the prayer vigil Saturday also urged mourners to take steps to avoid their own deaths.
“These were our friends and neighbors and they went to our schools,” said Donnie Dee, director of the faith-based nonprofit San Diego Rescue Mission. “And they died alone and didn’t have a service, so this is somewhat a service as we remember their lives.
“For our clients, today is a reminder for you of what could happen if you don’t finish the program, if we don’t work on this together.”
Clients of the mission walked to Waterfront Park for the 18th annual vigil that included prayer, testimonials, encouragement and song.
Stefanie, a 52-year-old mission client, watched the service from the fountain near Harbor Avenue.
“It’s an amazing ceremony,” she said. “A hundred and eleven people died last year and nobody had a service for them, nobody remembered them. Nobody wept over them, and this is what we are doing.”
By remembering them, she said, “we’re giving them our love and our attention. And we’re trying to make a change so this doesn’t happen.”
A bell was rung, and participants came up one at a time to place symbolic pairs of shoes on the steps of the County Administration Center.
With arms outstretched, they prayed. At one point they were urged to acknowledge the people seated near them as a show of support.
What caused 111 homeless people to die in the county last year?
Dee suggested their own distress was a factor.
“They are alone and not eating and they have no help or support and they think there is no future,” said the mission director.
Dee said he thought the biggest obstacle to overcome isn’t drugs and alcohol. It’s not job training.
“It’s shame,” he said at the end of the ceremony.
Dee continued: “And if we can engage people and let them know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have overcome what they have overcome, then they won’t seem so helpless and ultimately end up in a spot where this issue takes their lives.”
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Of the 111 reported homeless deaths in 2018, 75 were the result of accidents, including 48 from drugs and 14 from collisions, according to San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office and San district attorney reports cited by the Union-Tribune.
Twenty-seven homeless died from natural causes, six from suicide, one from homicide and one was undetermined, according to the report. About 16 were women. The ages ranged from 28 to 78, according to the reports cited.
Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who came to the event as a supporter, spoke of health factors.
“Housing is health care,” he told Times of San Diego. “The fact that these people do not have housing causes them to be very medically fragile, so whether that is exposure, the homeless who are run over, or folks who have violent ends.”
Gloria said the vigil causes people to pause and realize that the homeless crisis is leading to death on San Diego streets.
“It’s unacceptable for people to be unsheltered, but it’s also unacceptable to have folks dying on our streets, on our sidewalks, in our canyons,” he said.The mayoral candidate called the 111 figure shocking.
“I hope that it captures San Diegans’ attention and causes us to really consider what more we can do to end this problem,” Gloria said. “It’s an embarrassment.”
He said it doesn’t have to be this way.
“We can change it; we can end chronic homelessness,” he said. “We just have to choose to do it and make it a priority.”
During testimonials, Pastor J.V., senior pastor of the 2-year-old downtown Relentless Church, said he once slept at trolley stops and one time was severely beaten.
But he told the crowd that a stranger put his hands on him and told him he had purpose in life. That message was a voice that changed his life profoundly.
He encouraged the audience to echo that moment.
“With your voice, my voice, we can be the catalyst of change and bring somebody to not be a statistic or be an addition to this number, but be like myself a life that doesn’t have to live in the streets,” J.V. said.
Mission client Stefanie acknowledged the stigma associated with homelessness and the assumption that drugs or alcohol use play a part.
“There are a lot of different reasons that people are homeless,” she said. “There’s no set one reason, and people can’t control what happens to them.”
The Rev. Juan-Daniel Espitia of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, who helps at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, pointed to a connection between homelessness, addiction and mental illness.
Homeless people need to confront denial — minimizing the truth, rationalizing the truth and blaming others.
Espitia told participants: “You and I, we alone can make the difference by taking responsibility for all opportunities to improve our own welfare. Let us take the initiative, fight for what we need.”
Mission director Dee said of the vigil: “This is just a reminder that we’ve got to do better. Maybe we are making progress … but there are still too many people living on the streets and as you can see from today’s ceremony, there are still too many people dying on the streets.”
Dee said shelter, food and clothing are great — as are words of encouragement. So too are the mission’s “I See You” packets — sharing hygiene items and information.
“But if we are not ultimately taking someone through a long-term program, where we get to rewire what is going on in their hearts, then I don’t think we are going to change the issue of homelessness,” he said. “It’s got to be rehabilitation; that’s what we have to do more of.”
At San Diego Rescue Mission, he told the crowd, “prayer is our first response, not our last resort.”
Updated at 9:35 a.m. March 24, 2019
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