Amarillo homless memorial vigil provides ‘dignity,’ remembrance

Five hours before Amarillo rang in 2018, about two dozen people began gathering in the southwest corner of Ellwood Park near downtown.

 

They were there to pay their respects to members of the community who they say oftentimes go unrecognized and for whom memorial services are often foregone or not well attended.

“These people are all around us and these people deserve the dignity of being remembered in the same way that you or I,” said homeless activist Tim Justice. “So this is a way of giving them that dignity and giving closure to their friends and neighbors who might not have gotten the chance to go to a memorial or anything like that.”

Men, women and children were bundled up for Amarillo’s Second Annual Homeless Memorial Day in the snow and temperatures in the mid-to-low teens. The event is modeled after the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, in which national homeless advocacy groups encourage locals to remember homeless deaths on Dec. 21 — the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year.

“We found that a lot of times with Christmas planning that New Year’s Eve falls as a better date for us,” Tim Justice said.

Several of those who gathered were members of local volunteer organizations that help Amarillo’s homeless community, such as Rusty Tomlinson with High Plains Circle of Non-violence and Kip Billups — who has experienced homelessness in Los Angeles — with Amarillo Brown Bag Runs.

Those in attendance lit candles in commemoration of homeless people in Amarillo who died in 2017, one who died in 2016. A large candle was also lit for those unknown homeless who died this year.

Among those for whom candles were lit was Ricky Graves, 60, a veteran who was hit by a vehicle and killed last month while crossing Southwest Ninth Avenue on Tuesday morning near the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center, according to the Amarillo Police Department. The vehicle was eastbound on Ninth and did not see Graves in the street as he was crossing to get to the VA.

A candle was also lit for a homeless man in his 50s found dead inside a fireworks stand along Interstate 40 in October. The Potter County Sheriff’s Office received a phone call from members of a surveying company working near I-40 and Helium Road that reported locating a body inside the stand. It appeared the man had been taking shelter inside the structure and no foul play was suspected.

“This is us, essentially,” Justice said. “Every one of us, potentially in a different set of circumstances could be exactly where most of (the homeless) are.

“You see a neighbor and their dog is out in the cold, people are quick to call the police, but they don’t quite care so much if they know that a person is sitting out in the cold, and we need to have at least the same level of compassion for the person out there.”

To help combat the cold blasts that have been hitting Amarillo over the holidays, the Code Blue Warming Station at Guyon Saunders Resource Center is providing 24/7 relief for homeless persons who may have pets or addictions. Justice said it is a step toward Amarillo having a true low-barrier shelter that can serve the homeless who may have addictions or pets that can keep them from other shelters in the city.

“We’re making strides, but the long-term goal has to be to have something that gives a sense of permanence,” Justice said.

Justice was quick to point out that he and other organizations represented at the memorial were meant to be a complement to shelters such as Faith City Mission and the Salvation Army.

“All of these organizations are volunteer-run,” Justice said. “I don’t want anybody to think that we’re trying to replace or compete because their work is absolutely vital and just as important as everything else.”

Through the various organizations, Justice said the goal is to no longer have any more Homeless Memorial Days in Amarillo.

“It’s our hope that in the future we’ll get to a point where we don’t need to do this,” Justice said. “As long as the need is there, we intend to be here.”

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