These aren’t the names of children; they are the names of people our society didn’t care enough about to save.
Some struggles with mental health issues or addiction, others lost jobs or became ill and then lost their homes.
These 20 names don’t mean much to most people. Only about 100 people attended a memorial service for them this morning.
Whatever you might think, these lives were as precious as yours or mine in the eyes of God, and except for better luck than they had, you or I might have been in their shoes. This year there were 20 names of people who were homeless who died; there were more who were not named.
On this, the shortest day of the year, people gathered in the chapel of First Baptist Church here in Asheville, as we do every year, to honor the lives lost from among our homeless.
I used to cover this service when I was a reporter and I continue to attend each year as a health care advocate and as a person who believes everyone deserves a safe place to sleep at night.
I go because four years ago, when we learned Mike was dying and raced to be with him in Raleigh, another man I never met was dying.
Tommy McMahon had gone to the emergency room the night before with a respiratory infection. He had been there before; the staff knew him. The doctors there gave him antibiotics and an inhaler and discharged him.
But Tommy knew he was too sick to go back out into the cold and wind and he refused to leave. Someone called the police and Tommy was offered the chance to go to jail for the night. He was arrested.
Sometime during the night, Tommy died, and an editor called me in Raleigh to ask who a reporter might interview for a story. As I gave the names and telephone numbers of a few people, I knew my precious son would die surrounded by love, and he did just six weeks later.
Tommy, on the other hand, died alone in a jail cell.
This season always brings Tommy to mind as much as it does a baby born in a stable and placed in a manger. I wonder if anyone loved Tommy, whether he had family and if they had given up on him. That happens a lot with homeless people — they burn through all their family members before they’re turned out onto the street. Did he have a mental illness that should have been treated? Was he addicted to drugs or alcohol and not able to get the help he needed to sober up? Did he become homeless because of an illness or a lost job?
I wonder whether anyone grieved him as I do my son and I grieve for him just in case. I pray for his soul to be at peace. I do that for each of the homeless people who die every year, but especially for Tommy McMahan because he is forever connected to my son in my heart.
Tommy’s death made me understand that we are all connected, that we are responsible for each other. I got to say goodbye to my son; Tommy’s mother didn’t. Both men died because of injustice. They died because no one who could save them cared enough to do so.
This year, as the names of the dead were read, a little about each one of them was shared — at least something about the people that someone knew and could speak about.
- Fred Blevins, who perfected the sport-coat-over-a-bare-chest look.
- Paula Jean Gump Chrishawn, a mother of five whose battles with mental illness and addiction caused her to lose all of them because she couldn’t care for them. She loved the color purple, and she finally won her battles. She was one week away from moving into her own apartment when she died in September.
- Douglas Dillingham
- Dennis Gillette, an outgoing “gentle giant.”
- Floyd Hill, an accomplished storyteller with a deep mountain drawl and a veteran.
- David Isles, a veteran who smiled often.
- Herman Lee, a veteran known as “Buffalo.”
- Andrew Marsh, called Sammy, was known for his generosity.
- Dan Mason, who fancied himself a bodybuilder, even as he became increasingly weakened by illness.
- Joseph Metcalf, a soft-spoken native of West Asheville.
- Kenneth Myrick
- Rebecca Plemmons, a mother who was just rekindling her relationship with her daughter.
- David Pounders, a kind man who divided his time between his beloved mountains and the coast of Florida.
- Donna Ray, a woman of kind and gently spirit.
- Jeff Reynolds, a young man still struggling to navigate the world.
- Delois K. Smith, a kind and gentle soul with a great sense of humor.
- Jackie Todd Stipes, a former carnival worker who bragged that he often let the rides go longer than they were supposed to because he enjoys the looks on the children’s faces.
- Grace Teague, who adored cats.
- Luzella Whittemore, who was firercely independent.
- Ivie Ward Yearns, called by his middle name, was a large man and quiet.
If you have time for a prayer today, please include these 20 souls and the people who loved them.Leslie Boyd, a former newspaper reporter, is president of the health care advocacy nonprofit, WNC Health Advocates, founded in memory of her son, who died in 2008 because he couldn't access health care. E-mail her at leslie at lettersfromtheleft dot com or follow her on Twitter @leftyletters1, visit Letters from the Left on Facebook. For more information about WNC Health Advocates or to read Boyd's health care blog, visit wncha.org.