The brief life of Sivam Lekh was tragic, as chronicled by Erika D. Smith in her Dec. 29 column, “For a homeless mom, it’s the worst loss of all.” But Sivam’s death was no less tragic than the 96 homeless neighbors who died in 2015.
Their lives were honored on Dec. 21 at the second annual Homeless Interfaith Memorial Service.
Desiree Salazar, the mother of baby Sivam, attended the service to mourn her son. She slept that night at Trinity shelter.
Angel Blue of the Lakota Lower Brule Tribe offered a prayer and was stunned to hear the name of a family member but honored to remember her relative with a traditional prayer.
Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra gave a heartfelt and tearful reflection, sharing his experience being homeless. He echoed the cries of advocates for affordable housing for our homeless neighbors.
Moving and powerful reflections were shared by Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, Rabbi Mona Alfi, Pastor Joy Johnson and Auxiliary Bishop Myron Cotta.
Memorials are fundamentally about honor, and this homeless memorial was focused on restoring dignity for people who are made invisible by our society, including the media.
Despite this, Smith chose to focus on the tragic death of Sivam and shamed his mother in the process. The average age of the other 96 names read that evening was 49, and 10 were in their 20s and 30s. Yet Smith referred to them as “grizzled men and women, mentally ill and with addiction problems.”
The memorial was about breaking down the stereotypes that plague our homeless neighbors. Yet, tragically, Smith’s column reinforced stereotypes that dehumanize them.
Of the people we honored that night, only 27 percent died natural deaths. Another 28 percent died of drug (mostly heroin and meth) and alcohol-related causes; 22 percent died violent deaths, with causes including blunt-force head trauma, gunshots, stabbings and hangings, according to the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness’ Sacramento Homeless Deaths Report: 2002-2014.
Sadly, the column pitted tragedy against tragedy. The deserving Sivam against the expendable, “grizzled,” undeserving addicted and mentally ill men and women.
We read 97 names and lit the candles of grief, courage, memory, love and hope and sang “Silent Night” side by side, homeless and housed. We made a promise, individually and collectively, that in 2016, we would embody Mother Jones’ words to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
This is the story that honors Sivam and his 96 homeless brothers and sisters.
Bob Erlenbusch is executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shannon Stevens is an advocate for homeless people and can be contacted at email@example.com