The leaves are paid for by donations, engraved with names and dates, and usually placed on sidewalks in Seattle near where their namesakes lived.
Last spring, Sabrina Tate’s parents made one of the hardest journeys of their lives, driving from Spokane to Seattle to see the RV lot where their youngest daughter had lived and suddenly died of complications related to her drug use.
They spent the past five months grieving, and sharing Sabrina’s story, her struggles with addiction and homelessness. They were determined that Sabrina, 27 when she died, would not be forgotten.
This week, her parents came to Seattle again, to see a bronze leaf placed on a downtown Seattle sidewalk in memory of Sabrina.
“All I ever wanted from all this was people to know about her. I never wanted her to disappear,” said her father, Tommi Tate, who attended the ceremony with Sabrina’s mother, Kellie Sevier. “That’s what’s so wonderful about this.”
Leaves like the one memorializing Sabrina are all over the city — epoxied to the sidewalks of All Pilgrims Church in Capitol Hill; at the Mennonite Church in Lake City; at Gethsemane Lutheran, among the Amazon campus buildings. In all, 281 bronze leaves are in 15 locations around the city.
They serve as headstones for those who all too often can’t afford them. The leaves are paid for by donations, engraved with names and dates, and usually placed on sidewalks near where their namesakes lived.
The only requirement is that the remembered person was homeless in Seattle and also died in Seattle, according to Anitra Freeman, who helps run the Homeless Remembrance Project, which takes up requests for the leaves and places them.
This week, the project placed 11 leaves in two locations, including the one for Tate in front of the Seattle Municipal court building on Fifth Avenue in downtown.
“She had goals,” said Ernestine Goston, a certified peer specialist with the Downtown Emergency Service Center and one of the outreach workers who would bring Sabrina supplies and snacks to her RV. “She just wasn’t given a chance to fulfill them.”
That’s why Goston was here, and it is the point of the Homeless Remembrance Project — to honor these people and their lost dreams.
“She was somebody,” Goston said. “And she meant something.”
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Sharp rise in deaths
The deaths of homeless people are usually remembered in sheer number, as they have risen sharply in the past four years. The King County medical examiner set a morbid record last year, identifying 169 people as homeless at the time of their death.
As the numbers rise and the leaves pile up, filling up Seattle’s sidewalks and parks, the Homeless Remembrance Project must keep identifying new sites around the city.
On Sunday, the group placed seven leaves at Ballard Commons Park. There are now 56 leaves there, and two of them, placed next to each other, were for Roxy Baker and Greg Nichols. They were a husband and wife from Kent who died in the same summer, on the same property, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Ballard, across the park. Nichols died from heart disease; Baker died of cancer, under the eaves out front.
The memorial services are honest. Nichols could be a “pain in the patootie,” the Rev. Britt Olson said as she led the service, but his wife Baker loved him, and she lasted only a month and a half after he passed.
Beside her stood Freeman, who comes to all of these dedications, whether she knew the deceased or not. Freeman helped start this project in the early 2000s, after working her own way out of homelessness.
At the time, the only place homeless peoples’ deaths were mentioned was in the crime blotter in newspapers — often saying “transient found dead,” with no names or details about who the person was.
Freeman and other activists started organizing vigils, calling themselves Women in Black, and gathering in downtown Seattle to speak the names of those who died and to hand out fliers. But the ritual, Freeman realized quickly, was too ephemeral. Thus, the bronze leaves.
In design, they’ve fallen from the bronze Tree of Life sculpture in Victor Steinbrueck Park, north of Pike Place Market. It was dedicated in 2012 because of efforts from Freeman and others in the Homeless Remembrance Project.
It’s been a frustrating year for Freeman and many of her fellow advocates. After decades of work by activists, more people are sleeping outside than ever before. Every month, she goes through the medical examiner’s death reports, finding more and more homeless people who have died outside or by violence.
“I could not survive this year if not for the vigils and leaf dedications,” Freeman said.
And it’s not just a reminder for Freeman and Tate’s family, and the others who loved the homeless who have deceased. It’s a reminder to Seattle, they say, to not forget the people who died outside.
“There’s always going to be something of Sabrina here in Seattle,” Tommi Tate said. “She’s always going to be there as a visual reminder to anyone that’s in these buildings that there’s always more that we can do.”
Correction: The original post had an incorrect spelling for Kellie Sevier.