Homeless memorial service offers a prayer for the forgotten

Alan Jones at the Homeless memorial service. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Alan Jones considers himself “one of the lucky ones.”

On the streets from age 18, Alan has battled long winter nights since 1997 and is a regular at Vinnies Vans. He was recently assisted to move into a two-bedroom apartment in Redfern.

“My situation is by no means unique. For years many of my friends across the city have been troubled by homelessness and for a lot of them, the situation doesn’t look like improving,” he said.

Alan braved the cold with over 100 Sydneysiders at Martin Place for the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Service, held on the 21 June winter solstice to honour those who have died homeless, on the streets or in unstable housing.

The memorial, now in its fourth year, is supported by community organisations and charities, including the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Justice and Peace Office, the End Street Sleeping Collaboration, Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria, and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

“We’re here tonight to love them, to know them, and to mourn them. Maybe their names aren’t known to all of us, but we are a people of faith,” said Fr Peter Smith in his opening blessing.

“We know that God holds each one of them in the palm of his hand, that he knows each one of them by name, and loves each one of them.

“Our city will never be the great place that it can be until we all reach out to those who are struggling, who are on the margins, those who find life most difficult.”

homeless memorial service - The Catholic Weekly
Bishop Terence Brady and Catholic Cemeteries’ Patricia Thomas. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Nearly 50 names read by Bishop Terence Brady and Catholic Cemeteries’ Patricia Thomas echoed in the Martin Place amphitheatre—with many more unidentified. Music by the Sydney Street Choir and acapella community choir the Honeybees gave an uplifting conclusion to the otherwise sombre service.

Vinnies food van volunteers Michael Wewege, Annmaree Butler, Jo Kenderes, Stephanie Pantazis and Tania Chahoud served hot meals and drinks prepared earlier in the day by family educator Janine Hannigan and parents from St Francis Xavier Primary School in Ashbury.

“Together everyone’s made sure there was enough food for everybody doing it tough tonight,” NSW manager of Vinnies Vans Josie Charbel told The Catholic Weekly.

The PAYCE Foundation estimates that 140 people die in NSW each year while homeless. Of more than 120,000 homeless people in Australia, one out of seven are children.

NSW Minister for Housing Rose Jackson, who also attended the Vinnies CEO sleepout the night before, told the crowd the death of citizens to homelessness “diminishes us all and is a grief to us.”

“They may not have had a fancy funeral or a big memorial service or their name up in lights when they passed, but that doesn’t mean that they were any less significant,” she said.

“We recommit ourselves to recognising their names, recognising their stories, understanding that it isn’t a personal failure to experience homelessness.

“That is a system failure, it’s a policy failure, and those things are in our control.”

Bishop Brady told The Catholic Weekly the night was an “important” and “necessary” event not too far from the lines of makeshift beds near Martin Place train station, where many people resort to braving the cold nights.

“We are way beyond just cost of living. It’s all just blown out of proportion,” he said.

“Put simply, I don’t know how people can be expected to get by these days. This memorial certainly puts that into perspective.”

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