Service honours dignity of those dead without shelter

A memorial statue, unveiled 5 years ago, includes tiles crafted by homeless people.


A memorial statue, unveiled 5 years ago, includes tiles crafted by homeless people.

June 9, 2014

Forty people died in Edmonton last year. What makes their deaths unique is that they died because they were without shelter. They were homeless, unprotected from the brutal winter, street violence, a place to be safe.

You won't find their obituaries in the newspaper. But to many – their fellow people, agencies who worked with them, family members – they mattered and are missed.

So a quixotic mix of the city's street people, government and civic officials, musicians, and social service agencies gathered on a hot May 23 afternoon to mourn those 40 people whose lack of safe shelter robbed them of life.

Jim Gurnett, co-ordinator of events for the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, explained. "Once a year, we have a time when we can remember people who have died, because of homelessness or the inadequacy of housing. We have a crisis and it is not numbers or news stories, it is human beings."

The memorial service makes an effort to reach out to the friends and families of the people who died. In many cases, they don't have money and there's no proper time to remember and grieve.

"We say here's a place where you can all come together and remember their lives," said a passionate Gurnett. "Every human being matters. That's the point. It's not how wealthy you were or how big a house you lived in. You deserve dignity, even if you were homeless."

Just what does being homeless do to you? It could mean everything from being run over by a truck if you are sleeping behind a restaurant to dying from pneumonia or infection because of the cold and being unable to keep clean.


The streets are dangerous for those who call the pavement, alleys or riverbank home. Knifings are not that unusual. Neither are theft and fights.

But this memorial service for those who have died without a home is not a platform for finger-pointing.

"It's the one event of the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homeless where we are deliberately not political," said Gurnett. "We don't make speeches about whose fault it is, why the problem is there. We just remember the people."

John Acheson, chairman for the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness memorial service, underlined Gurnett's point. "This is an important memorial because this is the only opportunity for people here to grieve, say goodbye to those who died."

He cast his eyes around at City Hall and other buildings that bespoke power.


"I am looking around and seeing how unnecessary it is that we have so many homeless," he said with a shake of his head.

"Corporate profits in the banks – billions of dollars in this quarter. Banks and everyone else should make money. But we have to spread it around a little bit more. These are real people, real people. They are not numbers.

"They did not have a place where they could visit friends and family. Or go to church or to a sweat, or powwow and have a place to which they could return. They did not have a place where they could be silent and reflective and prayerful. They did not have a place called home."

The memorial statue which anchors the event in the downtown park north of City Hall was crafted by sculptors Keith Turnbull and Ritchie Velthius five years ago. The 40 tiles decorating the archway around the figure of the bowing man were crafted by the homeless people themselves, as they sculpted images that showed how being without a home impacts their lives.

Steve Armstrong has seen it all during his 10 years on the street and is now resolved to turn his life around.


Steve Armstrong has seen it all during his 10 years on the street and is now resolved to turn his life around.

David Berger, deputy executive director of Boyle Street Community Services, said several of their community members died this past year.

"We think about them, where they are, how they are doing spiritually, and we miss them. People that come to Boyle Street are part of the community. From a distance it may not seem that way."


Berger said those on the street are there through "no fault of their own – residential school, abuse, neglect. We wouldn't manage in those circumstances."

The hour-long program had an elegant simplicity, with the focus being on the mourners.

Bagpiper Chris Arbter played Erin Remembered and an evocative Going Home, the Inner Voice Choir with their African cloth scarves depicted the city's many races, soloist Mike Van Boom raised grieving spirits, Anglican minister the Rev. Travis Enright led the prayers and aboriginal elder Jerry Wood drummed during his reflection.

Those wishing to honour their departed friends and relatives lined up to pin a ribbon on a mounted board. Many were too filled with emotion to talk.

Steve Armstrong wasn't though. Certainly he felt grief for friends he had lost over the 10 years that he has been on the street.

"Willie Pickton killed some of my friends in Vancouver. Two of my friends (in Edmonton) froze to death in the winter. Bad things happen on the street here. I've seen people get stabbed. People get beat, robbed, die from drug overdoses, suicide."

Armstrong was born on Vancouver Island and worked in the sawmills. But the mills closed down and they "took away our work."

He came to Alberta in 1998.


"I made too much money, hung around with the wrong kind of people," he admitted. "Got mixed up with the wrong kind of women. Spirals out of control and you don't really care anymore."

At age 54, he can look back on those 10 years though memories of addictions to "alcohol, cocaine, heroin, all kinds of crazy things. I went to jail for fighting, drugs, various crazy stuff."

But Armstrong said he is turning his life around.

"I'm going to go back to work. I've got my resumes all done up" complete with five different tickets covering various aspects of work.

"I'll keep on sending out resumes until someone hires me. I try to help people sometimes. Now it is time to help myself."

What would he say to people who have never been homeless?

"You don't know what you are taking for granted. Don't judge people. It could be you."