Tag Archives: homeless memorial

Monica Nilsson was the speaker at the 25th annual Homeless Memorial

Monica Nilsson

Monica Nilsson was the speaker at the 25th annual Homeless Memorial.

Monica walked into Simpson Housing Services Shelter late one night in 1994 for her first shift as an overnight volunteer and couldn’t believe that there were rows and rows of sleeping human beings on foam mats at her feet. She spent many more nights at Simpson as a staff member and later opened the Simpson Women’s Shelter in 1999 before leaving in 2004 to go to The Bridge, a sanctuary for runaway and homeless youth.

In 2007, she joined Hearth Connection, working with providers serving long-term homeless families, singles and youth in Duluth, the Iron Range and on reservations. Currently, Monica serves as Director of Street Outreach for St. Stephen’s Human Services, working primarily with people who are sleeping outside. She is also Board President of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, a coalition of 150 organizations serving those who are currently experiencing homelessness.

Read Monica’s talk from the service:


For those of you who have never been here, welcome to our little town near the big city.  We settled here 25 years ago when we didn’t belong anywhere else.  We needed a place to do what our ancestors did: rest after a hard day, eat, visit, comfort the sick, bury the dead.  Despite our differences, we came from people who farmed the land: the Natives, the Irish, the African American-some who did so to survive, some because they were the commodity traded.  But what our ancestors taught us is that while tough times don’t last, tough people do.  And some came to our little town during their tough time: for a week or a month or a very long time. And despite the community’s wishes, some people died here.

The Natives taught us to recognize our people in the four stages of life:  the babies, the youth, the adults, the elders.  Wendy was alone here, so she became part of our extended family; someone had to watch out for her, naturally, and if you’ve known love, you give some back.  John and Adam didn’t make it to town much, they lived on the outskirts, so some of the townspeople made home visits, to the woods.  Patrick didn’t feel well – but in our town everyone can see the doctor-or sometimes she’s a kind nurse-but despite the community’s wishes, some people still died.  Sometimes it’s their spirit that’s broken-and the townspeople were too busy needing to convince the politicians or the bank to spend time visiting with the lonely.

Every year, there are new people here: some of you arrived with everything you need; some of you came off the road with nothing.  No one is bothered that Brian sits in the public square all day-because in our little town nobody has to hold a sign that says, “I need help”.  We can see who does because we take the time to stop and look each other in the eye.

Some of those who founded this town have passed on but they left us with valuable lessons: Mary acted kind of crazy…but she taught us to accept people as they are; we all knew that one day we might be the one who acts kind of crazy and we want to belong too.  There were those who took to the drink or the pipe. They belong here too.  We thought we knew who the needy were because we could see theirs but guess what? They can see ours too. They see who needs a break, who needs a good laugh, which of us needs to swallow our pride and ask for help.  Our town strives to have someone available when someone needs to vent, needs to feel like they’re contributing or just needs someone to listen to them and not say a word.  We all need a soft place to land.  Sometimes that soft place is an address, sometimes it’s a person.  So, we all need to tell people they’re special before they’re gone.

And everyone needs to feel protected, defended. So the strong would do so: at home, in the community or far, far away. Some protected family or strangers or country.  Most who went far away came back healthy, to love and purpose, maybe even a parade. Some came home and the next battle began.  And despite the community’s wishes, some still died.

And so once a year, our town holds its own parade with banners and signs- but this one is at night-and no one lines the sidewalks to watch-because the whole town is marching down main street.  If not, they are back at the church getting supper ready – not dinner but supper, we’re a small town after all.  Others are creating sanctuary.

You see, at least once a year everyone gathers to pray: the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, even a Mennonite.  There are the spiritual who wonder why there are so many religions. They don’t claim one… but they still have the faith. It’s said that religion without right action is anathema to God.  Our little town is faith…in action.

Our little town doesn’t have a newspaper so we don’t have obituaries, so, we rely on the ones who remember the stories and re-tell them to keep the deceased present.

Before I go, I have to tell you that I won’t be seeing you at the 50th anniversary of the founding of our little town.  You see, in 25 years, the babies will live in a place where they watch candles shine…on their birthday cakes at their own kitchen tables.  Youth will set fire…to bottle rockets and sparklers in their own backyards.  Adults will look each other in the eye by the glow of candlelight in friendship or romance across their own living rooms.  And elders will settle in for the night – not on dirt or a mat on the floor but in their own bedrooms, where they’re not afraid to fall asleep, and the glimmer of a single candle will provide peace and calm from the nightstand.  No, we won’t be seeing each other at the 50th anniversary because in 25 years, this little place will be a ghost town.


Last night we attended the 24th Annual Homeless Memorial Service at Simpson United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.

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”.

-Dick Bernard

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.

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.

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 www.simpsonhousing.org/memorial