By Jeff Mill, The Middletown Press
Hundreds of people gathered this week to celebrate success in the effort to end homelessness and to honor the memory of 15 members of the homeless community who died in 2016.
The homeless and their advocates, the formerly homeless, police officers and Mayor Dan Drew joined together Thursday to mark National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in a late-afternoon service in the Church of the Holy Trinity on Main Street.
The annual service, which has been held locally for more than a dozen years, is part of a nationwide observance of the effort to combat homelessness.
The event is held either on or as close as possible to the Winter Solstice, the day with the shortest amount of sunlight. Doing so “symbolizes what a long night it is if you are homeless,” said Lydia Brewster, assistant director of community services for St. Vincent dePaul Middletown.
The number of those who had to spend a cold, dark night huddled in a doorway or on an unforgiving street was substantially reduced in 2016, Brewster added. Sixty-six homeless people in and around Middletown were connected with home providers during the year, said Kasey Harding, the director of the Center for Key Populations at the Community Health Center.
Much of that success is due to a change in addressing the problem, by focusing on specific groups — veterans, for instance — within the larger homeless community, explained Cindy Dubuque of the Partnership for Strong Communities.
Beyond that, success has been achieved by a renewed commitment from the Malloy administration and from the state through the efforts of the departments of Housing and Mental Health and Addiction Services, Dubuque said.
Locally, the effort has gained from the support of the city and from “the United Way and countless other organizations working with — and on behalf of — the homeless,” Dubuque said.
And while that is welcome news, “There is still work to do,” she added.
As she began the service, Holy Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Dana Campbell, called attention to the 15 men and women from the homeless community who died during the year. More than just their lives, their unique stories were lost as well when those 15 people died, Campbell said.
Campbell said she had searched for a meaningful way to commemorate those lives. She thought first of flowers. But, “flowers wither,” Campbell said.
And so Campbell took a page from Judaism.
As each person who attended the service entered the church, they were asked to take a stone from a large flat flower basket.
“Within the Jewish faith, it is customary to leave a small stone on the grave,” according to the website shiva.com. “Placing a stone on the grave serves as a sign to others that someone has visited the grave. It also enables visitors to partake in the mitzvah tradition of commemorating the burial and the deceased. Stones are fitting symbols of the lasting presence of the deceased’s life and memory.”
“(Placing a stone) symbolizes that our memories of that person never go away,” Campbell said. &ldq