This is a powerful event, honoring homeless who have died on the streets in Minnesota in the previous year. Last night’s memorial was no exception.
Over the years, I’ve done a number of the walks preceding the
event, and last night I did as well. The walk of 26 or so city blocks in
decent, but ordinarily cold weather is an effort to call attention to the homeless.
Those walking the route, which includes the Nicollet Mall, carry
simple white wooden signs, each with the name and age of one homeless person who died last year. The walk is a silent vigil.
A speaker said that the average age of homeless who die on the streets is about 43 (73 for the rest of us). The youngest remembered yesterday was “Unknown baby girl, 1, Minneapolis”. The oldest, James Schichel, 79, St. Paul. There were about 60 on the list last night, plus a similar size list of “Formerly Homeless”, and six “Advocates”.
Dr. John Song of the U of M Medical School gave a brief but very
moving talk, reading real comments of homeless folks who feared for what would happen to their bodies when they died. It is no surprise: they are just like us in so many ways. They just happen to be homeless.
Last night, as they were reading the names and lighting a candle
for each who had died, the name “Greg Horan, 60, St. Paul”, jumped out at me.
I knew Greg. At his death he was listed as an Advocate for the
Homeless; when I met him, strictly by coincidence, he was not too manyyears off the street, living in a room in St. Paul. Until I read his age, I had no idea how old he was.
It was maybe a dozen years ago that I met him.
I was with a group that had been to a St. Paul Saints game, and
afterwards was walking to where my car was parked. As I was walking I struck up a conversation with a big guy next to me, in the pack. He asked if I could give him a ride home, rather than waiting for the bus. “Sure”, I said, a little unsurely. It was late, and it could be a long wait for a city bus on Snelling Avenue.
It was obvious from our conversation that Greg was an educated
guy. I think the topic of homeless came up during the ride at some point. He talked about a periodical he had been publishing for and by street people, and I asked if I could have a copy. At his home, an otherwise nondescript St. Paul neighborhood house in which he had a room, he went in and grabbed a handful of the newsletters, which turned out to be very remarkable publications, full of stories, poetry and art by street people.
I kept them for a long while, but ultimately gave them to a Native
American author I know who used to be on this list, but now no longer has a computer and lives in rural Deer River MN and (I’ve learned since) has a passion for Elvis Presley! (Her recently received Christmas card featured Elvis this year.) She went through Greg’s periodicals, and found some literature or art by someone she knew. I’m going to write her and see if, by some wild chance, she still has the newsletters.
Greg and I were more or less in each others lives for awhile. He
didn’t seem to have a phone or a computer or even a reliable address, so it was almost impossible to stay in touch, and I didn’t wander in his circles. Serious cancer entered his life. The last time I saw him, as I told the mostly filled church last night, was at that very service, perhaps three years earlier.
The guy immediately ahead of me read a truly incredible piece of
Greg’s writing, about life on the St. Paul streets. I hope I can get a
copy and share it with you. (Read here)
In our few visits, I picked up pieces about Greg’s life: growing
up in the hardscrabble anthracite mining country in Pennsylvania;
developing a talent for writing, moving up rapidly in the big city
publishing world on the east coast, until a series of catastrophes ended with his being flat broke and a street person at the Union Gospel Mission in Minnesota.
Greg had every reason to say “the hell with it” but he hung in
there, apparently advocating to his death for the community he had never planned to be part of.
As I once heard a minister eulogize someone else I knew, who’d
died in a car crash, and contributed mightily to his passion, Greg “lived before he died, and died before he was finished.” Not too bad a legacy.
As I write I keep thinking of two of those endless sayings that
float through my head: “There but for the grace of God go I”; “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.