More than 100 people crowded into the cozy sanctuary of Grace United Methodist Church on South Topeka on Wednesday night mourning the loss of at least 10 Wichitans who died during 2011.
Most didn’t know those who died.
But the yearly memorial service helps give names and stories to homeless people who might otherwise have been forgotten after their deaths. People like 57-year-old William “Broadway Billy” Wallace, who died in a house fire Nov. 17, and Marshall Hauschulz, 41, found dead in Riverside Park on Dec. 16.
For the families and friends of the dead, the service offered some closure. Others finally had the chance to remember their loved ones. One man, who goes by the name Gator, remembered Hauschulz as a man who “bought me a pair of socks. It’s just the little things that he would do.”
The yearly service coincides with National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, co-sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Remembrance ceremonies have been held each year since 1990 on or near Dec. 21 – the longest night of the year – according to the National Coalition for the Homeless website.
Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness, a faith-based group in Wichita, hosted the memorial service for the sixth time.
“Very often, people who are homeless when they die are not recognized by the community,” said Janis Cox, the group’s co-chairperson. “They are sometimes not viewed as persons who lived worthwhile lives.”
At the service, 11 hand-decorated stars and candles sat atop a pile of blankets and sleeping bags draped over the altar. Ten represented homeless Wichitans who died in 2011; the last represented any others who died while homeless.
“Sometimes the authorities or the hospitals aren’t aware that they are homeless,” Cox said. “There’s no official account of the number of homeless people who have died.”
In the church basement, homeless men needing a bed and food gathered at the Warming Souls Winter Overflow Shelter, which provides beds, two meals and other services to up to 100 men each night. The privately funded shelter rotates between five downtown churches from November to April.
The shelter is a reminder to Scott Kempin and Zach Werhan, two Trinity Academy students who participated in a candlelight vigil before the memorial service, that homelessness remains a problem in Wichita.
“The thought of me personally going without food for possibly a week – personally, I don’t know what I would do,” Kempin said. People don’t really think about there being “this bad of a problem,” he said.
Kempin, 17, and Werhan, 18, spend a few hours each month offering food and friendship to homeless men and women through their work with Compassion Ministry, a homeless outreach co-founded by Trinity Academy teachers Wanda Rowe and Linda Werhan nearly two years ago.
The candlelight vigil is Compassion Ministry’s contribution to the yearly memorial service.
A few of Wichita’s homeless men and women – most bundled in heavy coats and stocking caps – clutched bags of their belongings in their fists as students and other residents sang hymns around the church steps.
“It’s simply a remembrance of people that have been forgotten,” Zach Werhan said.