Longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said it wasn't just the cold that was symbolic as she and dozens of others met Tuesday to memorialize the 117 homeless people who lost their lives this year in Utah. It was also the day itself.
"Dec. 21 is the first day of winter and the longest night of the year," she said during the vigil that was held outdoors in Pioneer Park to "experience what many of our homeless friends experience."
"I like the longest day of the year because it means the days will be getting lighter for people."
While Atkinson wanted to convey a message of hope to the many individuals experiencing homelessness, and did so as she announced many of the programs being implemented, she made sure to let those in attendance know what the purpose of the vigil was.
"The idea of having this memorial for homeless persons was to honor the men, women and children who died for conditions related to homelessness," she said. "The goal this evening is to memorialize those who have died in conditions directly related to homelessness. … In many cases, this service will be the only commemoration of their lives."
Prior to the evening's memorial service, the number of lives lost this year was 116, but one was reported to have passed away that day, bringing the number to 117. Of those individuals, the average age was 53 years old, the oldest was 80, and the youngest life lost was just 19 years old. Nine of them were veterans.
A former homeless man, 54-year-old Fred Rivers, thought that he might have very well had his name added to that list. He spoke to the audience about his experience as a homeless person in Utah.
"I showed up in Utah from the East Coast in 2002 to work for the Olympics," Rivers recalled. "Everyone needed help. It was such a good time. The money just flowed like water. … I met so many great people."
Then he lost his little girl, and that's when he said, everything changed.
"All this happened when my little girl was taken away," he said. "I lost everything. I didn't care. I decided, 'Why should I have this in my life if she's not in my life?' This took me to the streets."
Rivers spoke about drugs and alcohol taking over, and his addictions worsening as he lived on the streets. He told about living in a broken shopping cart with a red wagon tied to it, as he and his dog did what they could to stay alive and survive the harsh Utah winters.
But he also spoke about the kindness he received from those he saw, and those who saw him as more than just homeless, but as a person. He told about a single act of kindness that changed everything.
"My struggle was so real, and the pain was unbearable at times, but I met so many great people. … One man was Burt Frank," he said. "He used to pass me by going to work and coming home. One day he brought me a hot cup of coffee and a burrito. He walked up to me and said, 'Hey, buddy! I'd like to give this to you.' You don't know how much that simple act of kindness meant to me."
As Rivers concluded his speech, he asked if anyone in the audience was homeless. "Don't be shy," he said. Then a man emerged from the crowd and walked to the front, where he was gifted a blanket.
As the evening went on with speakers and musical numbers, it finally came time for the names of the 117 men and women lost. The names were read by former homeless individuals who shed tears when names of people they knew were read. "He was my buddy," Rivers said through choked-up tears as he read the name of one of his friends.
As the final names were about to be read, the presenter stood tall, and spoke words that brought pause to those in attendance.
"There is no shame in suffering, but there is shame in shaming suffering," the presenter said.
The message at the vigil was heard loud and clear: See homeless people with kind eyes, and act accordingly, so that no more names will be added to the list of lives lost.