Twenty Five Years of Collecting Names

Commentary By Brian Davis

      The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless met on December 21, 2011 to read the names of those who passed away over the last year. This was the 25th time, NEOCH has gathered in Cleveland to remember those who died by lighting a candle.  In 2008, the State of Ohio with support from State Senator Mike Skindell and Representative Mike Foley recognized December 21 as Homeless Memorial Day.  The 2011 memorial was held at St. Patrick’s meal site where the event was held for five previous years.

     The Annual Homeless Memorial has been held on the first day of winter in most cities in Ohio and in over 100 cities around the United States.  Nationally, the event is organized by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless.  In Cleveland, the first Candlelight Vigil was in 1987 on Public Square.  The Coalition reserved space on Public Square for the first couple of years until it just got too cold, windy, and snowy for participants. 

      We have held the memorial at Trinity Cathedral a number of times, St. Malachi, Franklin Circle Church, St Augustine, St. Paul’s Church in Cleveland Hts, and Old Stone Church.   The Coalition tries to assure homeless people are involved in the vigil, so it is held during the time a meal is normally scheduled.  Typically, there is musician who performs and religious leaders who offer a prayer from their faith tradition.  Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Fairmont Temple might have the record for attending the most Homeless Memorial Days. 

      NEOCH also typically has one political leader in the community who attends and says a few words.  We have heard from Mayor Frank Jackson, Congressman Kucinich, Feighan, and Congresswoman Tubbs Jones.  We have had County elected officials including Chuck Germana, Jimmy Dimora, Peter Lawson Jones, Mary Boyle, and Tim McCormack.  State elected officials including Mike Foley, Mike Skindell, Eric Fingerhut, Jeffrey Johnson, Nina Turner, and Dale Miller have spoken.  Finally, we have had a number of Cleveland City Council members speak at the event including Joe Cimperman, Jackson as Council President, Jay Westbrook, and Joe Santiago.

      We have read hundreds of names over the 25 years.  We have always lit candles, and held a moment of silence for those who passed away.  We have always offered those witnessing the vigil to say the names of others that we may have missed in our collection of information.  Many of the names are collected on the NEOCH website.

      2011 was the first year with some controversy about the memorial in the last 25 years in Cleveland.  The largest provider in the community, Mental Health Services, refused to provide the names for the memorial.  This had never happened in Cleveland, and in fact the two national groups had never heard of this objection.  The names of all 4,485 American soldiers who died in the Iraq war are read on a regular basis and on ABC News every Sunday morning, but Mental Health Services cited HIPAA restrictions preventing them from breaking the privacy of their clients. 

      The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was signed by President Clinton in 1996, but the privacy provisions did not go into effect until 2003 in the United States and the enforcement rules were not in place until 2006.  They govern most health care organizations including mental health providers from releasing information about patients or disclosing health information collected from health insurers, hospitals, clinics while working to upgrade all records to an electronic platform.  All births and deaths in the community are public events that are announced in the paper.  We do not release the names of those who died by agency and we do not identify the cause of death, so no personal information is disclosed.  The individuals listed had previous experience with homelessness, but it does not mean that they died while homeless.  All we are doing is remembering a group often forgotten by society.

      Despite the controversy, we believe that this is a critical event in the community.  Was this a political decision to not release the names because the largest provider would not want to admit that they have done a bad job of providing services if more homeless people were dying?  We will never know, but we have asked the County to require all publicly funded programs to provide names at the end of the year.  County lawyers are looking at the situation. 

      Every year advocates hope that this is the last year for a homeless memorial day.  We hope that no one with recent homeless experience will need to have their name spoken at a Candlelight vigil.  We hope that there will be the political will in the short term to end homelessness making a memorial unnecessary.  We hope that the behavioral health and chronic health conditions will no longer bankrupt people to the point that they cannot afford to pay rent so that their name ends up on the memorial list.  We know that any period of homelessness typically has a negative effect on the lifespan of the individual, and so reading the names gives everyone a new energy to work toward an end to homelessness.

 Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Cleveland Street Chronicle Volume #19.1 April – May 2012