About a hundred people have gathered in a circle at Civic Center Plaza, a park at the footsteps of San Francisco’s City Hall. Holding lit candles, the crowd huddles closely together.
“Good evening and welcome everyone on this rather somber occasion,” says Reverend Lyle Beckman of San Francisco Night Ministry.
“May this be an opportunity to open our minds and our hearts and help to find ways to bring people into a safer place and care much better for those who are our sisters and brothers," Reverend Beckman continues.
California Senator Mark Leno follows him, “We're here to honor those who have died on our streets.” Leno then recites a Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning.
Prayers from other religions are also read. Then Carmen Barsody of the Faithful Fools Street Ministry walks up to the microphone with a sheet of paper in her hand.
A bell rings. Barsody starts reading names of homeless individuals who have died in the past year.
“John Smith, 47, died of assault. David Thomas, 42, trauma. John Doe, 33, natural causes.”
After each name Reverend Glenda Hope taps a metal bowl, sending out a resonating ring.
The annual ritual began in 1990 - a year when 16 people died of hypothermia on the streets of San Francisco. Reverend Glenda Hope, who ministered to the Tenderloin’s poor and homeless, started it as a way to memorialize those who would otherwise be forgotten. Back then, Hope, with a small group, would pause at each location where someone reportedly died. Now, a much bigger group of friends, family, activists, faith-leaders, and service providers gather each year in front of City Hall to remember.
“I lost two friends in recovery. The first friend I lost was...” Taking a deep breath Greta Harper continues, “Michelle Smith.”
With City Hall lit up behind her, Harper shares what brought her out tonight.
“She was my roommate. She would always argue with me and I didn't like that because we're in recovery. When you're in recovery you have to change, so she humbled herself to become my friend,” Harper says as she holds her tears back.
“Donna Williams was also one of my recovery sisters that died,” Harper continues. “Somebody beat her up and she had to have brain surgery and she didn't make it.”
Barsody reads off about 26 names in total – some are John and Jane Does. She then turns it over to the crowd.
“If there's others who have passed away that haven’t been named you can call out their names,” Barsody says.
People shout out: “Johnnie, Jose, Jackie,” and the bells continue after each name.
Some come to the mic with lists, including Gene Porfido from the Tom Waddell Health Center, a homeless service provider.
“As far as I know this one is just from our clinic, and it's the biggest one I've ever seen. There's four pages,” says Porfido.
At the end of the ceremony, over a hundred names have been heard. Porfido says they’re trying to figure out exactly how many people have died this year.
“We're trying to coordinate with the Night Ministries and find out exactly how many lists there are,” says Porfido.
But it’s not that easy, at least to find an official count. The San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) and Medical Examiner’s office each track homeless deaths, but they do it differently. The most recent numbers from SFDPH registered 108 deaths in 2012. Numbers from the Medical Examiner’s office were not available.
Life on the streets
“It gets pretty rough out there,” says Matthew Coleman. He’s been homeless and has experienced firsthand the conditions that can sometimes lead to fatal outcomes.
“Sleeping on the cold concrete, not having any clean clothes. So you know I was hungry,” says Coleman. “You know it got pretty brutal, pretty graphic, and a little too graphic at times. You know, violence like you wouldn't believe. People overdosing around you, left and right.”
In the city’s last homeless deaths report in 1998, more than 90% of those who died were younger than 64 years old. More than half of those deaths were drug poisoning and alcohol use related. Coleman says his own drug use cycled him in and out of jail.
“When I was incarcerated, a moment hit me in time where I was sitting there thinking: wow, due to the bridges I've burned, nobody would know about it. Nobody! ” says Coleman. “I can't be the only one in the world that has that feeling.”
He’s not the only one. Phil Clark from St. Anthony’s Foundation, which serves the city’s poor, says their clients often say the same thing.
“One of the things that always comes up [is]: Is that how I'm going to die? Am I going to die alone? Is anybody going to remember me?” Clark says.
Reverend Lyle Beckman says that while San Francisco is a beautiful city, it’s a hard place for some.
“So many folks ignore people who are forced to live on the streets, or folks with mental health issues, or folks with other physical health issues in such a way that they pretend they're not even there,” Beckman says. “So this is an opportunity for us to honor them, to pray for them, and to lift them up to the one who created them.”
At the end of the service the lists of names are placed in an ornate metal pot, where a fire burns. Reverend Beckman say he hopes people walk away tonight moved to create a healthy and civil city for all of its residents.
Listeners note: This story originally aired June 4, 2014