Nearly 150 people filled Holy Trinity, Trinity Square in Toronto on Feb. 12 to celebrate, mourn and honour eight individuals who died without a home in the first few weeks of 2019.
While the Toronto Homeless Memorial service has taken place on the second Tuesday of every month since 1998, February’s gathering was especially large due to the number of deaths and the publicity surrounding two of them.
Those who had died in the city in 2019 were named at the service: Chris Saboyard, Crystal Papineau, Tabitha Lewis, Hang Vo, James Young, Leonard Sisson and two men identified only as “John Doe.” The name of William Easter, an advocate who had experienced homelessness and addiction and died Feb. 3, was also added at the request of his partner.
(Seven more individuals, six identified as “John Doe,” were added to the total for 2018 from data recently released by the city on deaths within the shelter system.)
Rachel Robinson, a peer worker at Sistering, an agency for precariously housed women, remembered Crystal Papineau as a “gem,” a woman of “quick and incisive wit” who was always ready to offer a hug. Ms. Papineau died in a clothing donation bin on Jan. 8. Tabitha Lewis was remembered by a worker from the George Street respite facility as a “radiant, kind and creative” young woman, a “refreshing presence” who hoped to be reunited with her nine-year-old son. One man who had experienced homelessness spoke of how he had slept on the same grate where Hang Vo, 58, lost her life after being crushed by a garbage truck on Jan. 15.
The Rev. Maggie Helwig, incumbent of St. Stephen in-the-Fields, Toronto, remembered Leonard Sisson, whom she had known for over a decade, as a cheerful, upbeat person who tried to spread positive energy wherever he went. She encouraged all in attendance to work toward a society where everyone can live – and die – with dignity, respect and care.
Rabbi Aron Glasreich of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto spoke of the ancient sage’s response when asked at what time one should say morning prayer: “At the hour when you are able to see the face of another.” He urged those gathered to resist the temptation to become blind to the suffering of others, but rather to recognize the humanity of each person.
Finally, volunteer Rayna Slobodian read the names again, her voice breaking on the long list of John Does.
Street nurse and advocate Cathy Crowe said that she had not seen so many names added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial at one time in its 20-year existence. The memorial, located outside the church, remembers those who have died in the city as a result of homelessness.
After the service, Ms. Crowe and some 60 people headed through the gathering snowstorm to Toronto City Hall under the banner of the newly formed Shelter and Housing Justice Network. Several representatives were admitted to the mayor’s office to present a letter to one of his staff outlining their concerns over the increasing need for emergency shelter and affordable housing in the city. At the time of writing, there has been no response to the letter.