By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
They are on street corners and in shelters. They hold signs asking for help. They live in cars. They sleep under bridges.
They are homeless.
In January, Snohomish County’s annual Point in Time homeless count found 2,249 people without permanent places to stay.
On Wednesday, for the first time, this community will join with others around the country that recognize a grim date: National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day.
Since 1990, the day has been recognized on or near the longest night of the year. Sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, the aim is to raise awareness of people suffering with homelessness.
Last year, according to the coalition, memorial events were held in more than 152 cities. At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday on the Snohomish County campus, people will gather to show compassion and concern for those who have died on the streets and for homeless people who still are struggling.
The local event is sponsored by the Snohomish County Veterans Homelessness Committee, the Snohomish County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the county Human Services Department, the county Veterans Assistance fund board and the Salvation Army in Everett.
The local vigil will feature a special tribute to military veterans who have died homeless.
Jerry Gadek, a veterans services officer in the county’s Human Services Department, said that at Wednesday’s vigil he will read the first names, initials of last names, and branches of the military of 27 veterans who died homeless over the past decade in our community.
The majority, he said, served in the military from the years just before to just after the Vietnam War.
Founders of the national observance tied it to the winter solstice for good reason, Gadek said. “What better way to honor those people who became forgotten than on the longest and potentially coldest night?” he said.
Gadek worked as an Air Force recruiter in Everett before retiring from the military. Among veterans, he said, the unemployment rate is about 30 percent.
People who see homelessness on the streets are “just looking at the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We’re not seeing the families with three kids huddled in cars in a parking lot.”
Homeless veterans aren’t always visible, either. Over the past two years, Gadek said, the state’s Veterans Affairs department and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development have provided 85 housing vouchers for homeless veterans just in Snohomish County. He expects more vouchers will be needed in 2012.
Steve Akers spent much of his career as a mental health therapist on contract with the state Veterans Affairs department, counseling veterans at his Everett office. Now retired from that role, he heads a county Veterans Assistance board.
Along with the 27 names Gadek will read at the vigil, Akers plans to read the first names of about 10 more veterans. They were people he counseled over the past 30 years who ended up living on the streets. “It’s something I’ve watched over the years, when you can’t get someone to sober up or stop using drugs. With some of the homelessness of combat veterans, they feel they’re no good to anybody,” he said. “They isolate themselves away.”
The vigil is not only to recognize deceased veterans. “We wanted obviously to do justice to veterans, but not lose sight of the overall goal to honor all the homeless who have died on the streets,” Gadek said.
Raymond Miller is first vice president of the local NAACP chapter. He will introduce speakers at Wednesday’s vigil, which he hopes will become an annual event.
“A lot of folks think we don’t have a homeless population,” Miller said. “We do have homeless challenges in Snohomish County. We need to make sure that every man, woman and child has a place to call home.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vigil for homeless deaths
A vigil to remember people who have died homeless in Snohomish County is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday near the eternal flame outside the Snohomish County Courthouse, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.
The Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day program will include the Everett Naval Station honor guard, comments by homeless advocate Raymond Miller of the local NAACP chapter, Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick, Steve Akres of the county Veterans Assistance board, other county officials and people who have overcome homelessness.
A tribute will honor deceased homeless veterans. The Salvation Army will provide soup.