Category Archives: homeless memorial march

25th annual Homeless Memorial was a huge event

The 25th annual Homeless Memorial drew record crowds as people came together to honor and remember members of the community who died while homeless in 2009. Formerly homeless and advocates for the homeless were also remembered.

Over 400 participated in the march and over 700 attended the memorial service. We believe this to be a record attendance. Read a little history on the memorial service:

A history of the Homeless Memorial

Eric was a frequent guest in the early days of the Simpson Men’s Shelter. He was a quiet, somewhat shy Vietnam war veteran and even though he pretty much kept to himself, everyone knew and loved Eric. In the summer of 1984, days had passed since shelter staff and volunteers had seen him. This happened from time to time. No one thought too much of it. A few days later they got the news that Eric’s body had been found by the railroad tracks nearby. He had been beaten to death.

Simpson staff and volunteers had witnessed many people experiencing homelessness who die without anyone honoring their life. Simpson United Methodist’s pastor and shelter staff, volunteers, and Eric’s family members gathered shortly after he was found to honor his life, as well as the lives of a few other people they knew who had died that year. It was an important moment for all, including his family. They were happy to see that he had support and a community in his life. From that point forward, a nearby house that was a transitional home to three men at the time was affectionately referred to by Simpson staff and volunteers as “Eric’s House.”

The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless (MCH) heard that Simpson had held the service and proposed that it become a larger event, including names of as many people as they could gather. In December of 1984, the first official Minnesota homeless memorial was held, launching the collaboration between Simpson and MCH that exists to this day. Unidentified people began to be included throughout the years, as it was presumed that these people were, quite likely, homeless.

In the early years, the memorial was always held on December 21 (the winter solstice, the beginning of winter, and the longest night of the year) to coincide with the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day designated by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The event eventually transitioned to be held on the third Thursday in December, as this proved to be the most well-attended night.

The lighting of an individual candle with the reading of each person’s name was a unique aspect of the Minnesota event and has since been replicated by other memorials. In the early years when funding was especially tight, there were plans to re-use candles from one year to the next, but Carla Gainey, Simpson Executive Director from 1987-1997, was adamant that new candles be purchased every year. “Everyone should have their own candle.” This practice continues to this day.

In the mid 1990s, the march was added to the schedule for the evening. The Shelter Providers Action Association (newly formed to help combat funding cuts at a time when homelessness was increasing) began organizing the march portion of the memorial to help raise awareness of the issue of homelessness. It was initially a protest but gently grew into a silent vigil.

Marchers carry individual signs with the name, age, and hometown of every person being honored. One of the first years of the march, a Duluth woman travelled to the service. Her mother was homeless and had been murdered. To see her name on a sign was a moving experience for her. This started a tradition of allowing people to take the signs that displayed the name of a person they knew who had died.

One year, area churches rang their bells just before the service and one year religious leaders signed a Declaration of Human Dignity before the march. For several years, green and purple ribbons were available for people to wear. People were spotted wearing ribbons for months afterwards.

In recent years, the reading of the names has been divided into currently and formerly homeless as more and more people are moving into house.


Last night’s memorial was powerful and reflective

A marcherLast night’s homeless memorial march and service brought hundreds together to honor 100 people who died while experiencing homelessness in Minnesota.

What started out as a clear, warm day turned windy and brisk as the march departed the Hennepin County Government Center at 5 pm. I stopped at the Target on Nicollet Mall to purchase a pair of dry socks to finish the walk in. This was a luxury most people experiencing homelessness do not have.

It was interesting to note the reactions of bystanders on the street, most waiting for the Hollidazzle parade to begin. Several hundred silent marchers, roughly one third carrying signs with the name, age, and hometown of the person who died, led by a 10 foot puppet, do garner a fair amount of attention. Generally people stopped in silent repose. Occasionally you would get a “yes” or “something has got to be done.”

I was impressed by the large turnout of teens, many with their own handmade signs. And the site of individuals who seem to have been protesting for decades is comforting.

It was impossible not to be moved when you read of a 15 month old passing or an anonymous homeless youth from Minneapolis. There was a spirit of all these people coming together to receive comfort and strength from one another.

I look for a time when we no longer will need to do this.

Local artist and homeless teen organization to exhibit at homeless memorial march

Kulture Klub Collaborative, a local non-profit arts organization that brings together artists and homeless teens at YouthLink/Project OffStreets, a crisis drop-in center- located in downtown Minneapolis, will be involved with the 2007 Homeless Memorial March and Service. We are excited about the collaboration and to have them involved.

Artist-in-residence Xavier Tavera will be creating a guerilla cinema art installation at the Hennepin County Government Center. The guerilla cinema installation projects images on a large scale in public spaces. Quite often the images being projected are occurring immediately at the site. Last year Tavera taught a workshop in the artform at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Exciting stuff!

Tavera is one of Minnesota’s premier photographers. He’s been featured in numerous local publications and has exhibited at the Weismann Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Plains Art Museum and at the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City.

Works of art by teens experiencing homelessness will be on exhibit during the community meal that follows the Service of Remembrance. See the full schedule for the evening.

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.

Would you like to help with the Memorial Service?

Volunteers help us with set up and take down for this amazing event. Details are below.

Thursday, December 20th, 9 am- 12 pm

Volunteers will be arranging the event space, putting up a table and candle holders, placing folding chairs, moving furniture in the shelter, moving in tables and chairs for the community meal, setting up a volunteer opportunity table, and possibly painting signs.

Friday, December 21st, 9 am – 12 pm

These volunteers will be putting putting the candle holders in storage, taking down folding chairs, taking down a volunteer opportunity table, and rearranging the shelter space so it’s ready for the shelter guests.

I’m looking for 6-8 people for each day. If you would like to help please email me at or call 612.455.0859.

2007 Homeless Memorial March and Service

We are working at gathering names for our upcoming annual Homeless Memorial March and Service on December 20. It is a sobering process, but necessary in our eyes to honor those who have died while homeless in Minnesota.

The event begins at 5 pm at the Hennepin County Government Center, 3rd Ave S and 5th St S. Marchers silently carry signs with the name, age, and place of death, if known of those who have passed. The march proceeds to Nicollet Mall and travels approximately two miles to Simpson UMC at 28th St and 1st Ave where the service is held.

The Service of Remembrance is a powerful hour filled with bag-piping, communal singing, a message from Steve O’Neil, St. Louis County Commissioner and long-time advocate for the homeless, and reflection. A candle is lit while the name is read of every person honored.

After the service a community meal is held at the Simpson shelter. We invite you to join us for this poweful, important event. For more information go to