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Vigil for homeless reminds advocates of tough year

As a street outreach worker for CHUM, Deb Holman has had to develop a certain stoicism regarding the hardships she encounters every day. But Thursday's annual Christmas Eve vigil to remember the homeless got to her. "I'm having a hard day today,"...

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Participants in the annual CHUM Christmas Eve Vigil on the steps of City Hall Thursday hold signs with the names of area homeless people who died this past year. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

As a street outreach worker for CHUM, Deb Holman has had to develop a certain stoicism regarding the hardships she encounters every day.

But Thursday's annual Christmas Eve vigil to remember the homeless got to her.

"I'm having a hard day today," Holman said, following the short service outside of Duluth City Hall. "There's been a lot more people, more suicides, more overdoses. I've never seen nine suicides in one year, and they're relatively young people. It just kind of hit me today when I got here."

Both Holman and Tiffany Gunderson of the Human Development Center's Homeless Project battled with their emotions during the vigil as they took turns reading the names of 43 people in the area who either were or had been homeless or advocated for the homeless and had died during the year.

They stood at a podium placed on the concrete surface next to City Hall. As each name was read, someone with a sign bearing the individual's name, age and city walked forward and took a place on the steps.

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"Michael 63 Duluth"

"Frank 64 Duluth"

"Wynnie 67 Duluth"

"Ariel 25 Cloquet"

A young girl held a sign with: "Tiffany 36 Duluth."

After reading one name, Holman added a nickname and a comment: "Big John. And I got his last smile."

Dozens of people listened solemnly on the icy surface below the steps, bundled up on one of the colder days of a mild December. Candles were lit as the names were read, but many of them were snuffed out by a swirling breeze.

The chill underscored the reason people had been asked to bring jackets, hats, gloves and similar gear to donate to the homeless. A pile of them, in plastic bags and bins, had grown on one corner of the steps.

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Twice during the 40-minute vigil, Duluth fire trucks raced past on Second Street with sirens screaming, and once a Life Link helicopter flew overhead. They seemed like reminders that a joyous season can also bring sorrow and heartache to some.

Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, said the leading cause of death among the region's homeless this year was cancer, followed closely by suicide, overdose and complications from alcohol. Their average age was 51, she said; the average age of advocates for the homeless who died was 70.

"And there, in one sentence, is the impact of homelessness on the quality of human life," Stuart said, referring to the 19-year gap in median age of death.

Of the homeless, Stuart said, "They were all babies once, held in hope, even if for a few moments, by their parents. ... They were made in the image and likeness of God, but we as a people did not treat them like God among us."

In her message, the Rev. Marta Maddy of St. Andrew's By the Lake Episcopal Church, told of Jesse, a young man she had known who died of a heroin overdose.

"Jesse's mother left him when he was a baby," Maddy said. "His father was addicted to many things. I don't know how the heck he grew up into the loving and kind young man he was. He knew what it was like to be homeless. He knew what it was like to go hungry. And he was amazing. It is with great sadness ... that I bring him (up) today, because even where something cannot bloom, a rose like Jesse can bloom."

In 10 years of vigils she has attended, the most names she could recall being read previously was 30, Holman said.

"It talks to the reasons for homelessness," she said. "Addiction, mental health, poverty. People are just struggling."

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