Cleveland advocates gather on longest night of the year to honor the unhoused who died in 2023
Flickering candlelight, somber music and hopeful prayers echoed through the crowd at the West Side Catholic Center Thursday during a vigil to honor members of Northeast Ohio’s homeless community who lost their lives in 2023.
The vigil, held annually by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is meant to highlight the experiences of unhoused people and ensure they don’t go unnoticed, Executive Director Christopher Knestrick said.
“We hold this public vigil for our people. We light a candle for each of them and we will say their name,” Knestrick said. “Let us find hope in this ritual and the truth that that no one will be forgotten by their friends. And there is a community to love them.
During the ceremony, attendees read the names of more than 50 community members who lost their lives and shared their own experiences.
“A lot of those names you read off of that list, I knew,” Michael Adkins, a West Virginia native living at a camp on Cleveland’s West 45th Street said. “I'll always remember them because I'm one of them.”
After singing What's Up by the 4 Non Blondes, Adkins shared a story of a friend and neighbor who is in the hospital after his tent caught fire.
But Adkins said he was encouraged seeing so many new people attending the vigil.
“That tells me there's a lot of support out here that we don't know we have,” he said. “I want to thank you guys for that. I'm looking at a crowd that I'm not used to seeing.”
Homelessness reached a record high in 2022, due, in part, to lack of affordable housing and increases in rent prices, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In Ohio, 8,810 households experienced homelessness in 2023, according to the department's Point-in-Time Count.
Speaker Brenda Folmar said she experienced homelessness, and encouraged others to withhold judgment on the unhoused, since it can happen to anyone.
“Some come from good homes, bad homes in between homes,” she said. “While you're looking and laughing and eyeballing and talking and texting, you better watch it, I'm telling you, because you don't know what boat you're going to fall in.”
The city of Cleveland is engaging in outreach to find ways to adequately address homelessness, Special Assistant to the Mayor for Planning Emily Collins said.
“There are a lot of gaps and it's not just the city, but also the county that's looking strategically to fill those gaps,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunity for coordination and support to outreach partners for the purpose of housing Cleveland. So, I think we all have the same goals and we just need to work together to get there.”