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The Homeless Are Remembered

It was a hot noon on Friday, in the chapel of St. George’s Episcopal Church, and it was the lunch hour for many.

Still, 150 people crowded into the church on that March 15 afternoon, sitting for an hour listening to music, speeches and remembrances, memorials to some of Northern Virginia’s homeless men and women who have died in the past year.

There were speeches, speeches about homeless veterans, speeches about the need to do more, speeches about memories of the recently dead. As the afternoon wound down, the Mount Vernon Orchestra Association played chamber music sprinkled throughout the program, including Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Sandwiched between the music and the memories, though, were the names, 55 names of the region’s homeless who died in 2001 and early 2002. Audience members lined up, one by one, to read each name, a process that took time.

“Some of you may have felt that lasted too long,” said Gene Culbertson, organizer of the memorial. “But that was nothing compared to the actual list, the ones who died that we know nothing about.”

By chance, Dave Underwood said he read the name of a friend.

Underwood, now an Arlington resident, spent years on and off the street until 1997. He was drinking, he said, and didn’t know how to get back to a normal life.

Culbertson took Underwood under his wing, and asked the then-homeless man to help him take soup and food to other street people.

“My self-esteem was gone,” he said. “Gene asked me to help him feed people, and it helped give me some self-worth back.”

Many of Underwood’s friends from his homeless years are gone now, he said. “Most of the people I ran with are either dead or locked up now,” he said.

Underwood, along with other current and past homeless residents of the area, showed up that Friday to remember friends. Others, still on the streets, told their own stories. Ronald Holman, a homeless Vietnam veteran, said he had lost his home while he was in a VA hospital, and had nowhere to stay since.

A young Latina, who gave her name only as Diana, came to the front of the church with Dan Figg, counselor from the Arlington Street Peoples’ Assistance Network. She broke into tears as she tried to tell the audience about her own memorials: She had lived on the streets since age 13, she said, and she had lost her parents when they were hit by a car.

Underwood came to remember his friends now past. One of them was Bob O’Connor, the name he read aloud on Friday afternoon. “It was a coincidence, but I think it was a blessing,” Underwood said. He had seen O’Connor get off the streets and into an apartment last year, shortly before the man died.

“He’d stopped drinking, but his liver was gone,” Underwood said. “I stood by him as he died. A lot of them, names I recognized. I knew them, drank with them, slept with them.”

TRAFFIC STATISTIC

Norman Mackie was also named at the memorial. He died two weeks ago, but was the sign of what was to come, said Keary Kincannon, pastor of Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church.

Mackie was killed while stepping off a bus on the Richmond Highway in Mount Vernon, a traffic fatality.

But he was also a victim of society’s demands on the homeless, Kincannon said. “He had lifted himself up. He had gotten a job, found a place to live. Like so many, he couldn’t afford a car, so he had to walk,” the pastor said.

That was why Mackie was on Route 1 the night he died — he stepped off a bus on his way home from work, and was killed, despite all his efforts to get his life back on track.

Kincannon and David Lyons said the tragedy could still teach something, though, calling for a move to install sidewalks on that stretch of Route 1.

Their calls were joined by others as the memorial service went on that Friday afternoon. The service became a kind of colloquium on the need for more homeless care in the Washington region.

Gerry Creedon, priest of St. Charles Boromeo Catholic parish in Arlington, looked for more affordable housing in the area. Rising affluence in Arlington made Section 8 vouchers nearly worthless, he said.

This was the fourth annual homeless memorial service in Northern Virginia, a break from the national tradition of celebrating the event on Dec. 21.

The local event got its date from a local tragedy.

In 1998, several homeless men were killed in a house fire in the Hybla Valley area, near the Mount Vernon Multiplex. Culbertson organized a memorial to the men, who he had known as he worked with soup kitchens, substance abuse programs and other outreach services for the homeless.

That fire wasn’t his first, he said. “I’ve been involved with four other homeless fires in the last nine years,” he said. “The first was in South Arlington. A woman named Helen lived in the woods outside the Four Mile Run ballparks, and died when the camp she was in caught fire.”

Culbertson organized the event this year, but his efforts right are looking toward the future: setting up a permanent soup kitchen in North Arlington.

“I have the food lined up,” he said. “Now I need a place to cook which is street legal, and I need volunteers.”