Each year on December 21, the Winter Solstice, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, Homeless Person’s Memorial Day events honor individuals who have lost their lives while enduring homelessness. On June 21, the Summer Solstice, the first day of summer and longest day of the year, several cities have begun to celebrate those who have overcome homelessness, and to affirm that we can end homelessness for everyone.
Homelessness is not permanent. It is not a condition that defines the rest of a person’s life. It is easy to become homeless, but it is no easy task to break out of homelessness. People without homes face many systemic barriers, from the high cost of housing to low wages and inadequate public assistance programs, all complicated by poor health and poverty. Yet some individuals surmount these incredible hurdles and reclaim stable, healthy, and productive lives. The Summer Solstice, a day filled with light, is a fitting time to honor their accomplishments and to draw inspiration from them as we continue in the struggle for justice.
Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) projects in three cities have begun such celebrations of survival and resilience. We encourage others to create their own Summer Solstice events, commemorating strengths and successes while building the political will to end homelessness.
New York City
- The idea for a Summer Solstice celebration emerged at Care for the Homeless in 2013. Their annual event includes a dinner and awards presentation for individuals who have escaped homelessness. Recipients share their success stories, noting specific public policies and programs that helped them move out of homelessness and calling for their expansion to help others to become stably housed. The events include a “Wall of Success” on which consumers can define what success means for them, as well as a short story contest that invites participants to describe how they overcame obstacles in their lives.
- Miami’s Summer Solstice event aimed to demonstrate that there is life after homelessness, and that people can construct lives that honor their dignity and their own definitions of success. For their first celebration last year, Camillus Health Concern created an artistic performance depicting an individual’s journey through street homelessness, becoming housed, re-building self-esteem, and realizing that they have worth and dignity. The performance featured artistic interludes from musicians, poets, and dancers reflecting on the dehumanizing experience of homelessness and the resilience of the human spirit. After the performance, the senior leadership of Camillus Health Concern served a meal to attendees.
- Baltimore HCH will join the celebration this year with a community dialogue for people who have experienced homelessness and other members of the public. The conversation will focus on the services and supports needed to achieve and maintain housing—and why these are not more broadly available in order to end homelessness on a systemic scale.
Lessons Learned from the Organizers
- Counterpoised to Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day events on the Winter Solstice, Summer Solstice events provide an opportunity to highlight the positive changes that occur in people’s lives – as well as those that must occur in society and government.
- The leadership of people who have experienced homelessness can make Summer Solstice events particularly powerful. HCH Consumer Advisory Boards can play key roles in creating and conducting these events.
- Highlight specific policies and programs that have helped people overcome homelessness and call for greater support for those programs.
- Consider a “pilot event” of your own design for June 21, 2016: small initial events can be extraordinarily meaningful and provide a catalyst for greater recognition.
- Use social media to promote your event before, during and after the event, particularly to call attention to policies that would either help or hinder the goal of ending homelessness.
- Learn from each other. Please report on any Summer Solstice event in your community to the National HCH Council’s Consumer Advocate, Katherine Cavanaugh.
Join us in recognizing a crucial truth: that with affordable housing, adequate incomes, health care, and supportive services, we can end homelessness not only for individuals, but also as a society. The critical supports which have enabled some of our friends and neighbors to move out of homelessness are not broadly accessible, but they could and should be. These events highlight the stories of those who have overcome homelessness despite the odds, giving us the hope that together we can find the strength to create the political will to end homelessness for everyone. The fight for justice comes not from despair; it comes from hope – the hope that we can end injustice.