Homelessness Vigil Reflections

by Rev. David Huber, Interim President

On the evening of December 20, the night before winter solstice, JONAH Religious Leaders held a Candlelight Vigil for Homelessness. Our community gathered to honor our eleven homeless neighbors who died in the past year, to hear from people with lived experience about the trials and travails of living on the streets – especially in the coming winter months – and to lift up the injustice of an economy that is structured in a way to almost guarantee some percentage of the population must live in poverty, but also has enacted legal barriers to prevent good-meaning people from solving the problem. 

Speakers included three people with lived experience, including Maria Guzman, who was homeless at one point for seven months and now lives in the Solis Circle affordable housing and serves on the Altoona city council. Other speakers included Emily Anderson, Eau Claire City Council member; Michelle Pride, representing the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry; and Libby Richter, Community Resources Specialist for the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library, who shared the sometimes stunning, sometimes not surprising, results of a survey that was done last year with 40+ people living on the streets. 

The survey revealed much that is troubling, but there was one item Libby mentioned that has had me thinking a lot: the survey showed that the vast majority of those living on the streets say they do not feel welcome in this community. 

JONAH, and our larger groups WISDOM and GAMALIEL, is built on a strong commitment to building relationships, so to hear that we have people in our community who are already suffering from systems that drive people into homelessness for mental health, addiction, bankruptcy because of medical bills, and so on, also feel the insults, eye-rolling, avoidance, or other subtle and not-so-subtle messages from their neighbors that they should be hidden, pushed to the margins, or otherwise not be visible because their presence makes us uncomfortable. Well, perhaps we should be uncomfortable. There will be no change until enough of us become uncomfortable enough to make that change.

Housing is a human right, and, yet, somehow, we refuse to extend that right to all our neighbors. An even more important right, one recognized by all our faith traditions, is that all people should be treated with dignity and love, and of those who are living on the streets, many are dying alone, exposed to the elements, most go un-mourned because no one knows who they are. Too many die anonymously because no one learned their name. The Chippewa Valley Street Ministry does a truly amazing job of finding those living on the streets, learning their names, hearing their stories, offering dignity, and a sense of community. Would that our entire community be so brave? 

Jon and Carrie Jones of Altoona and their kids Lizzy, 6, Maria, 7, Jonathan, 9, Jeremiah, 11, and Audrey, 12, lit their candles and huddled around the fire at a vigil for the homeless at Phoenix Park in Eau Claire on Monday evening. Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope, a local community justice organization better known as JONAH, organized the candlelight vigil to promote awareness of those experiencing homelessness.

“On this cold night, let the cold serve as our reminder that we must empathize, we must imagine what our unhoused brothers and sisters experience when they are forced to live and do their best to survive on our unforgiving streets for 11 hours with no warm and safe place to just be and rest until Sojourner’s House opens for the night. We must imagine what it might feel like to be turned away on a cold winter’s night because the shelter is full. There can be no fairness or justice in a society in which some live in homelessness or in the shadow of that risk, while others cannot even imagine it…WE MUST IMAGINE.” ~Susan Wolfgram, Co-Chair of the JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force

I could say more about what was said, but my words cannot capture the emotion of the speakers, or the depth of their personal witness. Thankfully, our friends at Northern Spirit Radio recorded the vigil and turned it into a podcast, with some follow-up interviews with Maria and Emily, available for free here. The link contains the full versions of the interviews with Maria and Emily.

Having so many people attend the vigil on a chilly December night is one of many signs that there are people in this community who care, and for that I am thankful. We have had a dedicated and wonderful group of people who have created a warming shelter that is open on Sundays with future considerations to be open daily. The Street Ministry continues its faithful and loving ministry. May such work continue and grow, and may we also remember those who are living on the streets during the far colder weather we are having now. I pray for a day when housing is a right that all God’s people can experience.