John Petroskas reflects on gathering names for the homeless memorial service

For the last three years I’ve been collecting the names of Minnesotans who have died while homeless for the annual memorial service. This has been an unrelentingly depressing task.

The sheer number of people who die every year is overwhelming. I’ve collected 71 names so far this year, a number that is certain to climb in coming weeks. There is no real pattern that I can discern in gathering the names. Sometimes two weeks pass without a name being reported, then I’ll learn about five deaths in a single week.

Sometimes it’s a terrible surprise: “Hey, did you hear that Bill died? He had a heart attack at his camp on Friday. No one saw it coming.” Then I think: I saw him last week, we talked about the cold weather, he said he hadn’t been feeling well. Other times it’s not a surprise, just confirmation of something everyone could see coming.

Some stories are particularly hard to hear. It really bothers me when someone reports that a child has died while homeless, but it happens every year. It’s also especially sad for me when someone dies a violent death, but every year homeless people are murdered, commit suicide, or die in tragic accidents. Others die of chronic illnesses like cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and heart disease. Alcohol and drug addiction claim even more lives. Sometimes we don’t even learn the name of the person, or how they died – occasionally all we can list is “unknown man, Minneapolis.”

But as sad as collecting the names can be, there’s often a fragment of a story to accompany the name: the deceased was a veteran, a college graduate, a mother of two children, a musician. These details can be starkly revealing, heartbreaking, mysterious. How did a man with a Masters degree in English literature end up dying while homeless? How can a highly decorated Vietnam vet die of cancer while living in a shelter? We can’t always answer those questions at the memorial, but it does at least give us a chance to ponder them together.

Helping to share the stories of those who might otherwise be forgotten is the reason that it is such a privilege for me to collect the names and to participate in the memorial each year.

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