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Residents pay tribute to Duluth's homeless on Christmas Eve Day

Deaths are up though not necessarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Rev. Andy Knop, standing behind people holding signs bearing the names of people who died this year and who had experienced homelessness during their lives, leads people in prayer during the annual CHUM community vigil Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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Each year, CHUM — formerly short for Churches United in Ministry — organizes a Christmas Eve vigil to honor homeless people and advocates who have passed away. This past year was a tough one.

The number of deceased recognized on the steps of the Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon was 55% greater than the previous year.

In a typical year, about 45 deaths would be marked, but 2021 was no normal year, said John Cole, CHUM's executive director. This year, 72 deaths were recognized.

Though many might assume the increased death toll is related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cole said that is not the case.

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Billy Critchley-Menor lights candles as the names of area homeless and formerly homeless people, and homeless advocates who died this year were read Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"CHUM has been doing a great job in protecting our guests and the community at large from this catastrophic outbreak," Cole said, noting that just four of the fallen 72 succumbed to the coronavirus.

However, about one-third of the deceased died as a result of overdoses.

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"Together with our housing crisis, these two facts expose a stark reality that these deaths proclaim loudly: We cannot treat addiction from shelter," he said. "There is dire need in Duluth for ample residential recovery services.

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Donations of cold-weather clothing and gear sit at the foot of the Duluth City Hall steps during the homeless vigil Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"We think of the gifts they, at one time, offered our community, their personalities, their passions, their pursuits, their pain and their brokenness. And the challenge, the opportunities to do better that their very lives brought to this city. Today, in our time together in this act of remembrance, we offer dignity and love," he said.

The people memorialized Friday ranged in age from 23 to 92.

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"We are losing most of our people during what should be the most productive years of their lives — from the 30s to the 50s," Cole said.

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Rev. Pat Benson holds a hand up while reading “We Carry Their Names” by Carina Aleckson. Aleckson first read “We Carry Their Names” during the 2018 Minnesota Homeless Memorial March and Service. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The Rev. Pat Benson said, "In solidarity with all who sleep outside, who sleep in shelters, to show they are us, and we are them," she said, calling on the crowd to respond in chorus.

"We carry their names."

Cole thanked vigil attendees for paying their respects and said, "As you leave here, I want you to not only carry their names but to carry their cause. Remember that we have over 1,321 households here in Duluth that are without homes. And we are going to have to advocate. We will be calling on you to lend your voice and lend your action in solidarity with these persons who have passed and those who are yet alive.

"We do not want to come here each Christmas Eve to have an act of remembrance. So, it's up to us, who are alive, to be able to care for the work that is necessary to make sure that we reduce homelessness in our city," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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