(NEW YORK) — Kenneth Gonzalez died last spring, but he never had a funeral.
Instead, his friend Richard Jarrett stood in front of a room of mostly strangers in the basement of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City Wednesday night and, speaking slowly from a piece of paper, eulogized his friend during a service commemorating the hundreds of unhoused New Yorkers who died in the last year.
“He had a good heart. Everyone in the building misses Kenny,” Jarrett said in front of a crowd of approximately 200 volunteers, social workers, and homeless advocates.
Since 1990, advocates in dozens of cities have held services on the winter solstice — the longest night of the year — to remember the homeless who have died over the last year.
New York’s service, which was organized by the nonprofit organizations Care for the Homeless and Urban Pathways, remembered the lives of 331 people, many of whom lacked any kind of commemoration when they died.
“It is simultaneously tragic and in some ways entirely unsurprising that we have so many people to mourn today,” Molly Wasow Park, the commissioner of New York’s Department of Social Services, told the crowd. “Tonight is about people, New Yorkers who are sons, daughters, parents, siblings and friends.”
Nationwide, organizers in more than 40 cities are planning similar events on or around the winter solstice, according to National Coalition for the Homeless executive director Donald Whitehead.
The exact number of homeless people who die annually is a frustratingly imprecise statistic, according to Whitehead. Most coroners fail to collect residential information, and the United States lacks a unified approach to tracking homeless deaths.
Between July 2021 and June 2022 — the most recent count — a record number of 684 people experiencing homelessness in New York City passed away. Nationwide, Whitehead estimated that between 15,000 and 40,000 homeless people died in 2023.
“We know it’s way too high, and all these deaths are preventable,” Whitehead told ABC News.
New York’s service also highlighted the city’s ongoing reckoning with homelessness amid a surge of migrant arrivals and public violence involving the homeless.
With the arrival of over 150,000 migrants over the last 18 months, New York Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly warned that New York’s shelter system has been pushed “past its breaking point.”
The death of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man struggling with mental health issues who died after being placed in a chokehold by fellow subway passenger Daniel Penny in May, also brought international attention to violence directed at homeless New Yorkers. Penny has pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges.
“We remember a young man failed by society’s safety net following the tragic loss of his mother at a very young age,” Urban Pathways CEO Frederick Shack said during a eulogy for Neely at Wednesday’s service.
The majority of the names read at the service were accompanied by fragmented remembrances of the lives lost. While 13 people received eulogies, many who died were identified by only a first name. Some were accompanied by photos and biographical information, but others simply went by Jane or John Doe.
“While their names remain unknown, we do know that they had a life filled with stories, wisdom and significance. We know that they were somebody’s child, sibling, cousin, parents, aunt, uncle or friends. We also know that they were left vulnerable to the elements and, at times, to violence,” said Broadway Community Executive Director Isaac Alderstein.
According to Nicole McVinua, the director of Policy for Urban Pathways, the process of gathering names for the ceremony is a largely grassroots effort among organizers. The number of names read likely represents only about half the total number of those who died in 2023.
While nonprofits and city officials work to connect with the families of loved ones of the deceased, many go unidentified, lack any funeral service, and rest in New York’s potter’s field on Hart Island, according to McVinua.
“Everything is through word of mouth,” Dinack Martinez, a homeless man who lives in a Queens shelter, told ABC News about how he learned four people in his shelter had died.
While Martinez said he appreciated a formal ceremony commemorating the deceased, he said he struggled to reconcile the outpouring of grief at the ceremony with the callous way many members of the public treat homeless people on the street.
“An event like this, where we name those who have passed away, gives those who have passed away the opportunity to be. It marks their presence and their existence,” Care for the Homeless associate program director Katharine Mackel said during the ceremony.
For many of the social workers present at Wednesday’s service, the event also provided an opportunity to remember the lives of their clients whose lives were taken from them as they struggled to climb out of homelessness.
“Though I’ve only known Fred for a short period of time, I saw a kind, gentle and strong man who cared for his neighbors, others in the community, and family,” social worker Dottie Stevenson read about a client.
Meghan Garven, another social worker, fought back tears as she described helping her client Omar Gnyp order groceries on Sundays and write thank-you cards to the nurses at his rehab facility.
“The best part about working with Omar was watching him connect with himself and see his personality come out,” she said. “I can’t look at an Entenmann’s raspberry Danish without thinking of him.”
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