Holding candles and smooth stones, more than 80 people gathered at Milam Park Wednesday night for a vigil to remember the 71 people who died homeless this year in San Antonio.

They wrote 71 names on 71 stones. A bell rang and a small candle was lit at the park pavilion as each name was read.

San Antonio is one of more than 100 cities across the country that hosts vigils and other types of remembrance services on Dec. 21, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. It’s the longest night of the year due to the winter solstice. This is the 10th year San Antonio has marked the day with a vigil.

“Tonight in the spirit of unity that transcends race, gender, and social economics, we celebrate the lives of those who have passed away and pray for those individuals’ families and children who are homeless or are on the brink of a housing disaster,” said Navarra Williams, president and CEO of SAMMinistries, a nonprofit shelter and homeless services organization that organized the vigil with several other partners.

Most of the names were gathered by staff members and volunteers at places like Haven for Hope, churches, and other groups who serve the homeless. The solemn ceremony also acknowledged those whose names may never be known.

“(All homeless individuals) are deserving of compassion, dignity, and respect despite their housing status,” Williams said.

Nearly 80 people gathered at Milam Park to remember those from the homeless population died this year.
Nearly 80 people gathered at Milam Park to remember those from the homeless population died this year. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone/San Antonio Report

Williams said the vigil, which has been taking place in Milam Park since 2006, is a chance to look to the future “with hope and a renewed commitment to our goal of helping all San Antonians overcome homelessness.”

There is no recorded average number of homeless people who die homeless nationwide, “but the homeless have a mortality rate of four to nine times higher than that of non-homeless people,” Williams said, citing figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. SAMMinistries estimates the local average is about 60 deaths per year.

Homelessness can occur in an individual’s life at any age. The youngest person remembered at the vigil was 23-year-old Alexus Canales and the oldest were Judy Clayton and Robert Standish, both 77.

The average age for all deceased was 53 years old, a decrease from last year’s average age of 54. Many died of natural causes, Williams said.

Haven for Hope CEO Kenny Wilson pays tribute to the many homeless San Antonio lost this year.
Haven for Hope CEO Kenny Wilson pays tribute to the many homeless San Antonio lost this year. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone/San Antonio Report

“It’s typically because they haven’t had a healthy life,” he said. “It’s been low nutrition and no exercise.”

Speakers at the vigil prayed and read from Scripture.

“They are dead, but they are not forgotten,” said the Rev. Monte Marshall, senior pastor at Travis Park UMC, “and there is life and light to be found in such remembrance.”

Haven for Hope president and CEO Kenny Wilson praised attendees who have served the local homeless population in one way or another. That service, he said, can often mean simply knowing the names of the homeless individuals that they help.

“Friends come into our lives and friends leave our lives, but friends never leave our hearts,” said Wilson, quoting John Simmons. “You all being here honor them.”

Aside from Haven for Hope and SAMMinistries, other vigil participants included:

Here are a few ways you can help the less fortunate locally this holiday season:

  • SAMMinistries’ Kid2Kid Christmas Challenge encourages a gift donation or a monetary donation to support a homeless child.
  • Donate to Stand Up for Kids, which strives to help end the cycle of youth homelessness.
  • Five Star Cleaners is hosting its annual “Cold Days, Warm Hearts” campaign. Donate a new or gently used coat to any Five Star location through Jan. 31, and receive a gift certificate toward an order at Five Star. Coats are then given to SAMMinistries and Christian Assistance Ministries to help the homeless and underprivileged.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.