Tonight a small woman, layered in sweater and jackets, clutched my hand, her eyes closed as she said her prayer. She rocked with meaning, still drunk. Most of the year she lives in a park, but with the weather so bad, she had come in to the Winter Shelter. We formed a small circle, holding hands; the woman, the minister, a homeless man, another woman we had helped in the shelter, now housed, but again on the verge of homelessness, one of our employees, Christina, and me.
We stood in the entry of the Glendale Armory, away from the cots and TV, which was showing 8 mile. Few people were interested in joining us for Homeless Memorial Day, but that was okay. It was important to me and if just one person joined us, then it was worth it.
We gathered inside the Armory entrance, away from the rain. We couldn’t light candles for the vigil because that would take another phone call to who knows where to get permission, so we proceeded without candles. Rev. Garcilazo recited a poem about loss. It resonated with all of us. I thought about all the loved ones our homeless friends had lost. The family that would no longer see them, or who had died. Or the family they chose to avoid out of shame or pride. Our small circle liked the poem, and the man asked that we share what we were grateful for. As we went around the circle, the woman began her prayer of hope and grace.
At PATH Achieve, we are awash in love and giving from our volunteers. They overwhelm us with their abundance. They prepare meals and parties and meticulously shop for children so that they have no doubt that people care. The winter shelter also sees its share of volunteers who come to help or donate clothes or other items.
Yet for all these gestures, the prayers and remembrances, the parties and the gifts, it all cannot add up to what is really missing here. We are able to move about 70% of the people we shelter to something better. But that leaves 30% who don’t progress. And those are the people who can get into our shelter. We like to play up our success, but the failures are troubling.
Winter shelter, where the entrance criteria is much easier than PATH Achieve Glendale, is a place where you simply cannot deny that our society has failed in a very colossal way. Tonight I met a man about my age, autistic, who in the most childlike way asks my name, and minutes later returns to ask a little more. I saw another man whose water-logged hands were featured on the evening news. Then I met a young mother with a baby who has cycled through two homeless programs and she still isn’t in her own home. When you meet these people, it is all too clear that our system is more than broken. It’s failure to serve and protect such vulnerable people feels nothing short of criminal.
Homeless Memorial Day is to grieve for the people who have died homeless, but tonight I found myself grieving for the survivors.