A moment of dignity: Remembering the state’s homeless lost in 2017

  • Executive Director Ellen Groh of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness (center) along with Tom Fredenburg (left) and Episcopal Bishop Robert Hirschfeld pause as the names of homeless people who died this year are read aloud at the Homeless Memorial Day at city plaza in front of the State House on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The crowd at the Homeless Memorial Day sing in front of the State House on Thursday.

Monitor staff
Friday, December 22, 2017

Justice was served Thursday at the State House plaza, on the longest night of the year.

The sun, already dropping like an anchor these days, faded from view just a tad quicker, dragging the temperature down with it.

That gave the 50 people who congregated downtown on National Homeless Memorial Day a taste of how cruel New Hampshire can be.

The digital sign down Main Street read 27 degrees. From this view, it seemed quite fitting.

This was a tribute to the state’s homeless people who died in 2017. This was about feeling the pain, and the sub-freezing conditions provided plenty of glove-penetrating bite.

The Rev. David Keller of the South Newbury Church, a giant in the city’s fight against homelessness, was at the vigil with his guitar and soft voice.

Keller began strumming at the event in 2004. He brought the same green glove he brings each year, the one from his glove draw, the one with holes at the fingers’ midpoint, used so he can poke the fingertips on his left hand out and press the strings.

“I started coming here in 2002,” Keller told me. “I would be very happy not to do this. It would be nice to say, ‘Oh, no one who’s homeless died this year, so let’s go to the Barley House at 4 p.m. instead.’ ”

That was not the case, of course. Never is. Nine vigils were held across the state to pay tribute to the 51 homeless people who died this year.

Full names were read. So were first names with surname initials. Such is the nature of the homeless community. The people fall through the cracks. Information is often scarce.

Keller knew one who passed, a man named Jeff Rodgers, who died three weeks ago at a homeless camp in Concord.

Keller called Rodgers “Jethro.” He said he was the first guest at the first shelter opened in the city, on Jan. 9, 2004. He said he suffered from multiple sclerosis and needed a wheelchair to get around. He said he was a raging alcoholic, “as insidious and deep as I’d ever seen.”

But Keller also said Jethro was funny and kind. You just had to get close enough to figure that out.

“A wonderful heart,” Keller told me. “I saw his name that he had died, and I was not surprised, but I was deeply saddened.”

Ellen Groh, director of the Concord Coalition to end Homelessness, knew another on the deceased list, a woman named Deb Baker, who volunteered at the local resource center.

“She was like a favorite grandmother,” Groh said. “She would serve snacks and make it a loving presentation, with care and grace. She was in charge of that little kitchen. She made the place into a friend’s house.”

We also heard about Pat Banks, who, according to the program handed out, died at age 50 “and worked diligently and found a job and got back on her feet in July 2017. She was able to enjoy her remaining days in an apartment, allowing her to spend her last days with dignity.”

And we heard about Carrie Covey, “who wanted to work with animals in a veterinarian’s office. Above all, she wanted to be seen as a ‘normal human being’ like everyone else, not someone defined by the word ‘homeless.’ ”

Rob Hirschfeld is the bishop for the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire. With dark, sad eyes, he mixed empathy with politics, telling me, “This might be the only moment of recognition for them, showing up for people whom society did not show up for. Recent legislation in Washington does not seem to have a lot of concern for the poor.”

Rob Spencer, a doctor and teacher with a long gray beard, paused for five seconds before telling me, “I feel like the season and circumstances of the day have drawn us together in ways that bring me hope. The fact that people of different backgrounds and faiths remember homeless people in a meaningful way is hopeful.”

There were recitals, famous words by famous people. Will Hopkins of N.H. Peace Action read something from an April 4, 1967 Martin Luther King speech, which, you’ll see, was way ahead of its time, just like the man himself.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Hopkins continued: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The regulars showed up, as they do each holiday season, visionaries like Arnie Alpert and Maggie Fogarty and Pastor Jon Hopkins and Keller, none of whom have lost empathy for the homeless, all of whom view Christmas as a feeling, not merely a day.

We learned some year-long data, things like 4,013 Granite State citizens, including 787 children, made their way into homeless shelters, and the average stay in a shelter was 54 days, and 262 homeless people remained unsheltered.

Early in the memorial, the microphone went dark, so the circular crowd tightened up, closer to the State House and the speakers.

Keller was still playing his guitar near the end of the hour-long tribute. “I can’t feel my fingers anymore,” he said. “I’m going to stop playing and you can all just sing along.”