In a year with 45 homeless deaths, 50 people pay respects, including a cold person with a warm heart

  • Lizarda Urena wore open-toed sandals to the vigil in honor of the homeless. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Lizarda Urena, who knew and helped take care of Gene Parker, came to a vigil outside the State House on Wednesday night memorializing the 45 homeless people across the country who died this year. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Maggie Fogarty (far right) co-director of the New Hampshire Program for the American Friends Service Committee, speaks to the group of 50 who gathered for a vigil outside the State House on Wednesday to memorialize the 45 homeless people who died across the country in 2016. BELOW: Lizarda Urena’s open-toed sandals are seen. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Olivia Zinc of Franklin holds a candle at the vigil in front of the State House. The vigil was hosted by both the American Friend Service Committee and the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/21/2016 9:43:21 PM

I saw good people Wednesday as the sun and temperature dropped downtown, near the giant Christmas tree.

I saw people who care about the homeless. They volunteer, donate money and show up at events like the one I covered, a memorial to remember the 45 homeless people who died this year.

But believe me, you don’t care about the homeless like Lizarda Urena cares about the homeless. I know this because she sent me a video showing her tears and pleas to Pope Francis, asking for help as she tries to stamp out homelessness.

I know this because sometimes she travels to South Beach, Fla., where she recently lobbied the mayor to open a soup kitchen for the less fortunate – in a community that cares more about tourists and money than people and decency.

And I know this because I wore a winter jacket, the outer covering of four layers, plus a hood, and I froze my butt off.

Urena? She wore sandals, ignoring the agony of her feet.

“I dress like this to show people how the homeless can be outside at this time of year,” Urena, who wore no jacket or gloves, told me. “They’re outside when it’s below zero sometimes and they don’t know when the shelter will open. I’m sacrificing in memory of my friends.”

She’s a native of the Dominican Republic, with a thick accent that allowed me to understand most, not all, of what she said.

But trust me, I got the message.

I got her message.

She joined the usual cast of characters, a team of huge-hearted men and women who can’t fathom how anyone sleeps outside these days, in weather like this.

Maggie Fogarty, co-director of the New Hampshire Program for the American Friends Service Committee, was there. So was colleague Arnie Alpert, and religious leaders like Pastor Jon Hopkins of the Concordia Lutheran Church and the Rev. David Keller, formerly of the First Congregational Church.

Fogarty acted as master of ceremonies. Keller played his acoustic guitar and led the approximately 50 attendees in song. Hopkins and others read the names of the 45 people who have died in 2016.

People like Steve Cherup, who was beaten to death in Boston. And Robert William Cook, who committed suicide. And Alan Cornish, who said he was a veteran and might be buried at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, but only if caseworkers can track down a family member to claim his remains. And Alanna Marrotte, who died from a heroin overdose at age 24.

“The list came in over several weeks,” Fogarty noted to the crowd that formed a semicircle in front of the State House arch. “I was struck how young some of them were. They were someone’s son or daughter.”

Fogarty explained that research shows an extended time period living on the streets can subtract 12 years from someone’s life. She said that theory is magnified here, in New Hampshire, where the winters are so cruel, so devoid of mercy.

Fogarty mentioned “two symbols left in public places,” both of which slammed this problem into our faces, whether we liked it or not.

One was a wheelchair left near the intersection of Interstate 393 and North Main Street earlier this month. It was a reminder that 52-year-old Gene Parker had been killed there last January as he tried to maneuver his wheelchair along the side of the road, since neither the state nor the city would take responsibility for clearing the sidewalk.

The standoff lasted through last winter and into the early stages of bad weather in 2016. A deal has since been brokered, with the state agreeing to remove ice and snow there this winter.

Local attorney Tom Fredenburg, who paid his respects at the State House Wednesday, owns the building that houses the Open Hands Resource Center. He knew Parker, whose rough life led to the amputation of both legs.

Fredenburg helped Parker the day he died, pushing his wheelchair up the ramp at the Resource Center. He shook his head when asked about the circumstances surrounding Parker’s death.

“It was ridiculous that it took that long,” Fredenburg told me. “I was shocked it took that long after someone had died. It was kind of a stare down, who’s going to blink first?”

The other symbol Fogarty was referring to was the haunting likeness of a dead body, wrapped in trash bags, placed at the foot of the State House Nativity Scene last Saturday morning, in the same spot where this memorial was held.

“It was quite jarring, wasn’t it?” Fogarty told me. “Powerful.”

During the short ceremony, some good news emerged. Like the story about the man in his 30s, homeless since grade school, who had recently moved into his own place through a local program called New Start.

“I saw him before I was leaving today and he gave me a hug,” said LuAnne Ryall of Northfield, who volunteers for the Coalition to End Homelessness. “He teared up and he was scared because it was such a different lifestyle.”

It’s a lifestyle that Urena wants to bring to others. In fact, she’s dedicated her own life to achieving this. She tried recently to open a soup kitchen in South Beach, Fla., but said she was rebuffed. Something about a facility like that being an eyesore.

“The mayor said we needed to go somewhere else,” Urena told me. “This was a tourist area.”

She befriended Parker, meeting him at the Friendly Kitchen about four years ago. She used to push his wheelchair. She used to give him rides in her car.

“His dream was to have a home,” Urena said.

She sent me two videos on YouTube, one showing her seated in a homeless campground during a warm spring day in Concord, with trash and clothing and sleeping bags strewn around. It’s labeled as “A Message to Pope Francis.

Choking up, she says, “The purpose of this video is to make people realize that homeless people need help. I feel very sad because I used to come here to bring food for my friends and now I don’t know where they are. They are somewhere hiding in the woods.”

Her other video is a winter scene in Concord, a snowy landscape with a blue tent tied to a tree.

“I want to let people know homeless people are good people,” she says. “I’ve been around them and I need not to be afraid. They treat me very nicely, they are friendly and they are nice to me. I care about them and they know that. These people need a homeless shelter all year around here in Concord.”

It’s not clear where Urena produced the video. She pans around the abandoned camp, tattered, stained tents everywhere. Clotheslines everywhere. Milk crates and bicycles everywhere.

Her work continued at the State House, near the giant Christmas tree. The place where caring people bundled up and remembered the homeless who died in 2016.

Urena stood with them, wearing open-toed sandals.

“I am cold,” Urena told me. “I’m freezing. I want to show how some people feel.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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