Women in Black of WHEEL, the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League, for 17 years have been holding vigils for homeless people who have died outside or by violence in King County.
The fliers have names. Willie “Bama” Tedder. Tobias Adams. Kalin Lubben. Nicole Popescu. Kirstyn Outen. They also list causes of death.
The second Wednesday of the month, white paper fliers are either accepted or ignored by downtown Seattle’s bustling noontime lunch crowd.
A few people hand out the fliers as others, dressed in mostly black, stand silently from noon until 1 p.m. across Fifth Avenue from City Hall. Then they recite the names of homeless people who have died outside or by violence in King County. Last year, it was 62. Already this year, they have stood for 37 deaths.
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“When we first started standing, we usually got word of a death by word-of-mouth, or sometimes, a brief mention in the newspaper,” said Anitra Freeman, 67, one of the original Women in Black of WHEEL, the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League, who started the vigils 17 years ago. “You know, page 37, ‘Transient found dead.’ ”
Now, with help from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Health Care for the Homeless Network, they get a list, usually the first week of each month. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Richard Harruff said he took an interest in WHEEL/Women in Black over 10 years ago, when he said he realized it was the only group that cared.
“As our office is responsible for examining the homeless deaths, we see over and over the unfortunate conditions as no one else does.”
He attends the annual memorial for homeless deaths on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, to meditate on the experience of those who are unwanted.
“Why do I think it is important? This city is my home, and as Mother Teresa reminded us: ‘We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.’ ”
Getting the list of names each month is never easy, acknowledges Michele Marchand, 52, another WHEEL/Women in Black member who has been involved with the vigils since they started.
“It’s only through community that you can get through something like this,” Marchand said. “It helps to name names.”
Learning the names can be emotionally difficult. The fear is finding the familiar ones.
“Someone that you know well and loved to pieces … and you wonder, where is she now? Where is she now?” said Marchand.
“Sometimes, it’s a shock,” said Freeman. “And, sometimes, it’s almost a relief, when somebody that you knew was in bad shape. Just disappeared. And you don’t know what happened. And, it’s a grief, but at least, it’s a closure.”
By 2003, the vigils weren’t enough, said Freeman. They started on a permanent and public memorial, by raising funds and securing grants, and by meeting with designers and the Seattle parks department.
The Homeless Remembrance Project now has both the Tree of Life sculpture in Victor Steinbrueck Park by Pike Place Market, and Leaves of Remembrance, a collection of more than 200 bronze leaves, engraved with names, embedded in sidewalks throughout the city.
Each leaf, in 12 areas around the city, has a story. From Roger Andrews, who requested a leaf before his death and cherished it while he was in hospice, to Kathy Blair, who was found dead of hypothermia by volunteers during the One Night Count in 2013.
Freeman, who is formerly homeless, said that she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Depression from the disorder helped trigger her homelessness in the first place. In the early years of the vigils, when they seemed to stand once a week, she worried that the focus on death would set her back into depression.
“Depression is not crying a lot and feeling sad. Depression is numbness. Numbness and withdrawal,” she said. “So, going out to actually confront the grief, and feel the grief, and share it, with other people, it brought me to life.”
The location of the vigils is deliberate, Freeman says, to remind municipal leaders of their responsibility to their most vulnerable citizens.
“We stand there, right across from City Hall. And, looking at City Hall, we’re giving them something to look at. And we’re passing out our fliers to passers-by. Telling them about what’s happening. And making it real. And making it felt for other people.”
Reading through the list of names is heavy. Cause of death: suicide. Shot to death. Hit by car. Overdose. Many just say: pending.
Marchand tries to check up on the cases for which the cause of death is listed as pending. In this past winter, their lists show that five people have died from hypothermia: four in December 2016 and one in March 2017. One woman, Maja Brandli, 29, died of dehydration and malnutrition in Renton.
“It seems so obvious, the calling cry for doing the vigils. Without shelter, people die.”
According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, 64 people with no verifiable address and deemed to be likely homeless, have died so far in 2017. Their average age of death was 45.9 years.
WHEEL stands vigil for only outdoor or violent deaths of homeless people in King County. Hospitals and shelters, no. Suicide, yes. In May, they stood for 11 deaths in April alone. Freeman calls this an unprecedented rate.
The intent was to counter what they saw as apathy and victim-blaming in the reporting of outdoor and violent deaths.
For Freeman, the hope is to someday never have to hold these vigils. But for now, she aims to inspire individuals to feel the importance of every human.
“We have to treat people with dignity in death in order to learn how to treat people with dignity when they are alive.”