The first name on the list is Charles Seaver. The next, Brad Dangerfield, followed by Gloria Sparks. Farther down, there’s Heather Swaim and Leon Winter.
Who these people are – or were – I have no idea. I can only guess what they looked like, wonder what color hair they had and how tall they were. I have no idea how they lived or how they died. Whether they had children who loved them or caring parents who preceded them in death.
But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that for a few minutes on a sunny, unseasonably warm Thursday morning, I thought about them and that I now know their names.
That’s the point of the Memorial Wall at Friendship Park on the grounds of Loaves & Fishes.
Built in 1990, the beautiful slabs of marble, set in an L-shape that hugs a babbling fountain, bear the names of hundreds of homeless people who’ve died in Sacramento over the years. For many, it’s the only headstone they’ll ever have.
The names, and often the faces, of the dead come to the attention of Loaves & Fishes in random ways. Sometimes, they hear the stories from homeless campers, in from the disgusting dangers of the American River Parkway to eat lunch, who talk about friends who didn’t wake up that morning. Sometimes, someone from the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office calls, wondering whether anyone can help identify a body. Either way, it’s all rather sad.
Too often, to be homeless means more than to merely be without a home. It also means to be without an identity in society. To be nameless and faceless, one of the hundreds of homeless people on the streets who look, smell and sound the same. To be completely ignored – and, in some cases, casually stepped over – by people hustling to business meetings or to dinner or to grab drinks.
I can’t quite imagine what it would be like to be ignored every day, invisible. I also can’t imagine what it would be like if no one really knew that I lived and therefore didn’t care if I died.
This is something that the employees at Loaves & Fishes understand all too well. That’s why they make an effort to learn everyone’s name and hold funeral services when they die.
The Memorial Wall isn’t full of names yet, but soon there will be more space to inscribe them. Loaves & Fishes recently broke ground on a new Friendship Park, just north of its administrative building along North 12th Street. Set to open next September, it will be twice the size of the current park.
The new Memorial Wall will be a curved affair, cupping a handicapped-accessible pathway. The hundreds of names on the current wall will be carved into the new wall and the dozens of names that, sadly, arrive every month will be added.
The mission of it will remain the same, though: to remember, to celebrate and to believe in life.