Hundreds mourn Minnesotans who died homelessby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Hundreds of mourners gathered Thursday night to remember those who died while struggling with homelessness this year - 130 Minnesotans whose lives were cut short by violence, depression, frostbite and other symptoms of a life spent on the streets.
The dead include Lucious Varnado, 57, who lost his life in an abandoned home when he set a fire to keep warm, Michael McMillan, 30, who was shot in the head in August and died at a Minneapolis hospital, and a one-month-old girl whose name was listed as La'Monica M.
Organizers say the twenty-seventh annual memorial provides a stark reminder of the state's failure to end homelessness. This year's list is the longest in at least seven years, they said, and advocates worry about next year's numbers.
"It's creeping up," said shelter advocate Robert Hofmann. "It's tough."
He added, "A lot more people are out on the streets right now. All the shelters in town have hit capacity even earlier this year than they did last year, and so even though I'm trying to be optimistic about it, pragmatically, I'm not so sure."
Organizers gathered the names from social services agencies, hospitals, obituaries and medical examiners. They say the list is far from complete. Several deaths are often reported in the hours leading up to the march, and many more are never reported.
The silent march began at the Hennepin County Government Center plaza, the site of the Occupy Minnesota movement - although only a few posters and a handful of protesters remained - and ended at Simpson United Methodist Church.
As the crowd gathered on the plaza, Troy Burton and his 11-year-old daughter Lily walked over to a mound of signs, each one bearing the name of a person who died. Lily, who came to the march dressed in a red puffy coat and a Santa hat, looked for a sign for the youngest person. Many signs had already been taken, and she settled on one that read, "Shatara, 25, Edina."
Last year, she said, she carried a sign for a baby who died. The sign gave the age of the baby as 0.5.
"I thought it was only five years old, but it wasn't five years old," Lily said. "I figured out that it was just a small baby, and that made me sad to hear that a little baby died in the winter when it could've had a longer life."
When Lily was a baby, her father was homeless and had lost custody of his daughter. Burton struggled with alcoholism and spent his nights sleeping on a shelter mat or a friend's couch. He was depressed and frustrated.
"All's I ever wanted to be is a father to my daughter, and when I didn't have that opportunity, it crushed me, and I kind of gave up on myself," he said.
Burton said he was able to quit drinking and later found housing and got a job as a custodian. His daughter now lives with him.
He said many fathers are in similar circumstances. They struggle with drug or alcohol addiction and give up on life. Burton said he wants those fathers to know that a better life is possible.
"I did it. Here I am, and I'm supporting other fathers out there and other homeless people in Minnesota," he said. "That's why we keep coming back to this thing."