Six candles were lit Sunday in recognition of five homeless people who died this past year in Wichita plus one more for any anonymous person who might have been missed.
“We do this as a reminder,” Rick Cline, spokesman for the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness and pastor at RiverWalk Church of Christ, said Sunday before a Homeless Person’s Memorial Service.
“We believe all people matter to God. It doesn’t matter what a person’s life circumstances were or how they died. They are all human beings and deserve respect and dignity,” he said. “These individuals may have lived in challenging situations and in an anonymous world, but it is important to lift them up and recognize that their lives did have value.”
The service Sunday night was held on the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – at St. James Episcopal Church in an attempt to recognize the needs of the homeless.
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Six white roses were placed at the church altar. More than 50 people attended the service; some carried bouquets of flowers.
Only the first names of the deceased were mentioned in the service: Joseph. Anthony. James. William. Carmen.
Anne Corriston, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries in Wichita, said Sunday that Wichita’s last population count – always taken annually at the end of January – shows a homeless population of nearly 630 residents.
That number changes regularly based on the definition, she said.
“There are two definitions,” Corriston said. “The school system says if you don’t have your own place and are sleeping on someone’s couch or on a floor, they count that as homeless.”
This past year, 1,200 to 1,400 children were defined as homeless, she said.
The city’s housing and urban development officials narrow that definition to people sleeping outdoors or in a place that is unfit for human habitation, or in a temporary shelter.
In years past, Corriston said, the homeless memorial service remembered as many as nine or 10 people who had died. The names are received through various work or homeless agencies.
“Homeless-serving agencies work so hard to move these people into more permanent housing,” she said. “Sometimes we are successful; often we are not.”
Pastor Ronda Nusbaum remembered her friend Joseph.
“The first time you told me you had been recruited by a professional baseball league? I went, ‘Yeah, right.’ But that was because I didn’t know you before the alcohol took over. I caught glimpses of what you used to be ... when you hadn’t been drinking, when you had been eating and sleeping regularly. In those times you were amazing.”
The focus of Sunday’s memorial service was also about looking to the future and taking care of people with current needs, Corriston said.
On the night of Nov. 12, when temperatures dipped to 9 degrees, 105 men and 20 women sought refuge in Wichita’s homeless shelters, Corriston said.
On Christmas Day, the shelters will be open all day.
“The story of Christmas is about a family that was rejected and forced to sleep in a manager, then give birth in a manger,” she said. “That is the story of how Christ came to be born. It is a story about simplicity, humble surroundings and rejection. We see that in this community with homeless people. It is easy to judge and make mistakes.
“What we try to do is not judge people for what they have done in the past – that’s for courts and law enforcement to handle – but we can gently encourage them to move forward and to have a starting place, shelter, meals and human dignity. That’s why we should care.”