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Remarks from Portland’s Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil

December 22, 2017

For 23 years Portlanders have gathered at the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil on the winter solstice to remember our friends whose lives were cut short. On the longest night of homelessness, we mourn our loss and recommit ourselves to ending homelessness.

Remarks from this year’s speakers—Elena Schmidt and Cheryl Harkins—reflect the anguish of the loss we feel and the urgency to ensure that everyone who needs a home finds one.

Elena Schmidt, Preble Street Chief Development Officer

“I am awed by the privilege of being here and the bond I have with those here in body who embrace the stranger and those here in spirit who have been victims of upside down values, bankrupt policies, and profound alienation.

I’ve worked behind the scenes on the corner of Portland and Preble Street for 26 years filled with anger at the injustices around me and our failure to rise above self interest to empower the strangers in our midst. Filled with shame that in so many ways we value profits and personal prosperity above fairness and the value of each human life

I offer my voice to speak of the struggle and triumph of the brave, intelligent, battered, resilient souls whose voices echo every day in the space I occupy; and especially in this place “where love stops and stays” and welcomes the stranger.

I offer my voice to cry for the mothers and fathers whose children have died;

The sisters who have lost their brothers;

The friends who have lost their companions;

The loved ones whose only comfort was that in this city at least there is shelter, there is food, and there is hope when all seems impossible.

I am humbled to be here to share this moment with you as we cross paths with the souls who have blessed us despite how badly the world treated them.

Some of the words I have are from others.

The words of our beloved strangers who are gone but whose presence enlivens us.

The words of people like you who have held the hands of the stranger as their lives slipped away.

The words of the suffering, the healers, the poets, and the reformers among us and the unspoken words of each of you holding a candle tonight.

The people we remember tonight were homeless because of a flawed system. 

Whether they were homeless because of illness of mind, decay of the body, or a shattered spirit, all they needed was someone to coax the strength that was buried within their hearts. 

They died because of a culture, a state, a nation that all too often abandons its duty, its humanity, its soul.

One day I walked up the steps from the soup kitchen to the Resource Center and a young man sitting on the stairs looked up, said hello, and used my name. He couldn’t see my badge, and I wondered how he knew who I was. As we talked he reminded me he was one of the kids who grew up in my neighborhood.

A year later he was dead. Why?

Why was he alone? Why had he given up? Where was the help he needed? Why did he die?

Every day we must be listening for the voices of those who long to be recognized. Who plead for a coat, a chance, detox treatment, a home.

Voices of people who are always outside . . .  always looking in.

We need to welcome them in. They do not belong on the street

They should not die under a bridge or in a tent.

They should not die in a shelter.

They should not die alone.

They should not die.

In these desperately troubling times, against a backdrop of sanctioned intolerance, unfairness, marginalization, and selfishness, we have to hold out the hope of dignity based on love and compassion.

For any human beings to survive, for any relationship to succeed, there has to be love and compassion.

For any community to thrive or any nation to prosper there has to be an immutable commitment to respect and protect the well-being of every one.

At Preble Street our professional social work and love and compassion are mutually inclusive. Against the injuries of abuse and neglect, of addictions and despair, all the work we do—to comfort to heal, to encourage, to empower—begins with respect, love, and compassion.

And here tonight our presence speaks of love and respect, as a chorus of calm gentle voices speaks to a person who has collapsed from an overdose, calling him, urging him back to life.

If there is any hope of survival, people need to hear that we are here, loving and cheering them on to life.

And if survival is not possible, the last voices they hear should be from people who respect and love them.

Everyone deserves to leave here tonight to sleep peacefully and safely and to be warm; to feel there is enough love in the world to hold them.

Everyone deserves a home.

Everyone deserves healthcare.

Everyone deserves to hear a chorus of voices offering hope.

We have not done all we can do until we stop sacrificing people, stop shaming people who are addicted, stop blaming people for being poor.

We have not done all we can to honor the lives of those we have lost until the stranger sleeps as well as we do and wakes to a community that hears their voices and opens the doors and gives them the strength to keep trying.”

Cheryl Harkins, Homeless Voices for Justice

“Good evening.

My name is Cheryl Harkins. Around Preble St and lots of other places I’m known as Cher. I was homeless for a good part of seven years. I closed out a place known as Hobo Jungle. I was one of the lucky ones. I survived. I am alive to tell my story and to tell every single person who hears this who has any sense or a heart: this homeless thing needs to stop.

Portland,  as the community I know it can be, needs to come together to help find a solution to this issue.

Homelessness is not a disease. It is however a crime. A crime against the disadvantaged. An attempt at gentrification whether you realize it or not. If you sweep them out of the way, remove the low income people because you can put in maybe a bay window, and charge a lot more. You, the community, are killing your neighborhoods. You are removing families sometimes from the only homes they have ever known. Please realize the crime this society is guilty of is trying to “Kill the Poor.” Families suffer.

My friend Trisha Crocker passed alone in her tent at age 31. That is a crime. That is a shame. Trisha leaves behind her mother Nancy and three pretty daughters: Riley, MacKenzie, and Ryan. I am here to honor her memory tonight.

It’s also getting dangerous out there. There’s the case of Sunao Thomas Yamada Jr. He is the kind, quiet man who had been homeless for about 20 years. Someone recently felt the need to murder this man on Temple St. An anonymous  donor is having a plaque installed on the bench he used to sleep on. Thank you for the gesture. We shall miss Sunao Thomas Yamada Jr. If anyone has any information that could assist with this case, please do not let him die in vain.

And Maggie Peters. A nice lady. Sick. She finally gets housed, the house was condemned because a slumlord didn’t want to fix it. Homeless again, Maggie ended up in a rooming house where she passed because she held on as long as she could. We can’t all hold on. With a 47-year-old life expectancy for a homeless person, not everyone has the strength.

We at Homeless Voices For Justice are welcoming working with City Planners to keep the Oxford Street Shelter open for 24 hours. The improvements will keep people safer and warmer. Lots of improvements are needed still, but all together I know we can pull it off.

Thank you to the people of our  community for having a heart for those who have nothing.

Goodbye to the people who have contributed to our society. We shall miss you. Everyone needs someone to bury them.

Tonight, we do the honors.”