The nonprofit organization We the Unhoused held a vigil in front of Los Angeles City Hall to memorialize those in the unhoused community who have died over the years.
On Oct. 15, We the Unhoused Founder Theo Henderson and other members of the unhoused community gathered to remember family and friends who have passed away. For Henderson — who was unhoused for eight years — this is the third year he’s held this vigil, which he began during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These conversations are important to have and remember because our housed society really doesn’t give a damn about unhoused people’s humanity,” Henderson said.
Henderson said that he hopes these vigils enlighten people to the hardships unhoused people face, but the most difficult thing was to show society how it is largely indifferent to such plights.
During the vigil, Henderson recounted the story of an unhoused woman in Chinatown called Butterfly. She suffered from schizophrenia, which was exacerbated by being unhoused. She eventually took her own life by jumping off a freeway overpass.
He told another story of another unhoused woman who was killed by a speeding car while she was asleep in her tent. He said the driver has not been found and claimed that police at the scene were laughing and making jokes about the woman.
Others attending the vigil shared their stories of those who’ve passed and their concerns.
One woman talked about how little society cares for unhoused people, particularly when they pass away. She said they are treated like trash — thrown away or cremated and have their ashes thrown somewhere.
“People just don’t care,” she said. “It’s just very sad, [but] it’s just really beautiful to see that a group of people come out here and do this [vigil] every year, year after year, to say we see you, and we remember you and we love you and we will never forget you.”
Another woman read the names of unhoused people who eventually did find housing, but later died while housed due to a lack of a support system, including healthcare. She criticized the LA City Council for allegedly covering up the number of unhoused deaths for those that pass away in buildings like shelters.
“That’s what we do here, is build community with unhoused people,” the woman said. “We build solidarity with them and even when they become housed, we still follow their journey, we still love them because the house isn’t what’s going to save them — it’s community, it’s love and it’s healing.”
Another young woman talked about two unhoused men who died on the same day due to fentanyl poisoning. She remembered how while collecting one of the men’s belongings, his children arrived and broke down in tears upon hearing the news. She criticized local politicians, calling them “murderers” and “fascists,” saying they had blood on their hands.
The vigil comes at a time when deaths within the unhoused community are on the rise. An April 2022 report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the number of deaths in the unhoused community between April 2020 and March 2021 was 1,988 — a 56 percent increase from the 12 months before the pandemic began.
One of the attributing factors to these deaths Henderson said was Section 41.18, a City of LA ordinance that makes it illegal to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or public way.” Henderson described the ordinance as being born out of “anti-unhoused, anti-Black, anti-Brown and anti-indigenous sentiments.”
“Anytime you’re living out in the elements, dealing with climate change and pollution, disparate temperatures, unhoused people are going to be on the front line to lose their lives,” Henderson said. “Unhoused people have to cope with the trauma of living out on the street and the challenges and the hostility that is Section 41.18 that also includes removing unhoused people’s belongings.
“Of course, unhoused people are going to be physically and emotionally affected, and 41.18 is the social murder of our society right now.”
Another factor was the lack of a support system or community for those that do find themselves in homes. Henderson said that simply giving an unhoused person a home doesn’t erase the traumas the person has experienced.
“Unfortunately, our society has been a blaming and shaming society that we don’t really look at unhoused people as human beings, we look at them as a statistic, as something to hurt or to get away [from], or as a criminal element to be locked up or to be harmed,” Henderson explained.
“We don’t look at it as that we are part of a human family and they need the same services to be able to transition to a housed community, like all of us that are living in houses and have taken it for granted.”
Henderson said that the best way forward to help the unhoused community is a multi-pronged approach that can deal with a variety of issues, such as substance use and mental health, and dealing with the stigma and “heartlessness” many people feel towards the unhoused.
When asked if the resignation of former City Council President Nury Martinez, who Henderson has frequently critiqued for her anti-unhoused stance, could open the way for someone more sympathetic to unhoused people on the council, Henderson didn’t express much hope, saying that voters elected people like Martinez to power in the first place.
He also said that the people who approved of 41.18 were a mix of people who are Black, White and Latino, and while Martinez’s resignation is a start, more resignations need to follow for effective change.
However, he did give praise to the younger generation, particularly those in the Latino community, that are pushing back against the anti-unhoused rhetoric used by older generations, which does give him hope.
“In order for things to change, we need to come from a level of meaning and understanding, of honesty, and what I’m so proud to see in our communities … is that the younger generation is just not putting up with the BS anymore.”
Other vigils have been held for unhoused people in the past, both in LA and in the San Fernando Valley. One such vigil was held in Koreatown in 2018 on New Year’s Eve.
In December 2021, Valley-based groups West Valley Homes Yes and the NoHo Home Alliance collaborated to create the “Longest Night Memorial” event. It was held at multiple locations, including North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Canoga Park and Chatsworth.
It’s very exasperating to note that asking anyone to take responsibility for their own life and circumstances is now called “blaming the victim.”
Taken far enough that eventually becomes, “No one is responsible for anything that happens to them.”
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