EVERETT — On the longest night of the year, dozens of people stood vigil for homeless men and women who have died this year in Snohomish County.
Twenty-two names were read aloud by candlelight Thursday outside the Snohomish County Courthouse on Rockefeller Avenue, in front of a crowd of more than 70 people. The flames of their candles fought to keep burning against icy gusts of wind.
Rebecca Sumner, a pastor at the church Our Common Table, opened the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event with a prayer.
“You have made it clear, through the scriptures of many faiths, that these are not your desires for human beings,” she prayed. “We celebrate every good gift they gave us.”
Homelessness has soared by 65 percent in the past two years in the Snohomish County, according to an survey carried out each winter by volunteers.
Most of those on the streets locally point to substance use, job loss or a family crisis as the main reason they lost their home. A surge in opiate abuse — prescription pills and heroin — has plagued vulnerable people with overdoses, addiction and the crimes that are a societal side effect.
Earlier this year, an annual survey found 515 people were living without shelter in the county, sleeping in cars, in camps, on sidewalks, or wherever they can unroll a sleeping bag. Forty-four of those were veterans. And homeless veterans were the focus of this year’s vigil. A bell rang after each name of the dead was read aloud. Four were veterans: two Marines, one Navy sailor, one Army soldier.
Another 551 people were counted living in emergency shelters or transitional housing as of this year. Their ages ranged from days old to those in their late 70s.
Shannon Gaule, a reintegration worker for homeless veterans at Workforce, spoke about her frustrations in trying to get people care about those without homes.
“I’m kind of angry. I’m sad,” she said. “Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed with the work that we’re doing. It’s definitely going to take all of us.”
She told the story of a man she’d interviewed outside of a library earlier this year, a gentle giant named Brett. He told her how painful it was when people looked at him like he was beneath them. Right then a woman walked by and sneered at him, she said. He started to cry. Life on the streets had left him with poor treatment for a skin condition. He died from it.
“Homelessness had everything to do with why he is now gone,” she said.
His name was not read aloud Thursday night. Gaule wondered if it was because he died in a hospital, instead of literally out in the cold. She recalled a message he kept repeating throughout their talk.
“We are people,” he told her. “We are still people.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.