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Cleveland homeless memorial remembers more than 50 people who died in 2021

Speakers take turns reading names during this year's homeless memorial in Cleveland. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
Speakers take turns reading names during this year's homeless memorial in Cleveland.

On the shortest day of the year, advocates for the homeless in Northeast Ohio read the names of more than 50 people from the community who did not live to see 2022.

Many were remembered by their full names, among them Lee Bishop, Tierramarie Lewis and Cynthia Grimm. A few were recalled by their nicknames: Michael, Robert (Bobby) and Rico. One was known only as Unidentified Individual.

About 80 people gathered for the outdoor memorial in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood near the campus of St. Ignatius High School. Several speakers took turns reading the 52 names, at times repeating the refrain, “We remember you.”

This annual event reclaims the dignity of those, now dead, who lacked shelter in life, according to Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Chris Knestrick.

“We know so many folks that don’t ever get a funeral,” he said. “There’s not a chance for their families to come together to go and say a final goodbye. And so this is a time that we do that."

To Knestrick’s knowledge, COVID-19 was not a cause of death among those remembered Tuesday afternoon. Last year, Cuyahoga County and other service providers arranged to house many homeless in hotels – a move meant to relieve the pressure on shelters during the pandemic.

The hotel initiative is now over, Knestrick said. But with the omicron variant of the coronavirus on the move, it may be time to revisit the strategy, he said.

“We saw the success of hotels,” he said. “We saw it drop unsheltered homelessness in our community. And so I think it should be something that we’re looking at and considering.”

Organizers handed out battery-powered votive candles. Knestrick took three to light in honor of three people on this year’s list.

One candle was for a friend who sometimes slept just steps away from where the group was gathered, he said. Another was for a frequent visitor to the Catholic Worker drop-in center. And the third was for Tierramarie Lewis, a transgender woman who was fatally shot this summer.

“I will light this one to remind myself of the work that I have to do personally, but that our community is called to do, to make sure that everyone, no matter their identity, no mater who they are, has a place that they can call call home and feel safe,” Knestrick said.

NEOCH board member Kim Goodman helped open the memorial service with a reading of the poem “A New Beatitude” by the late Cleveland poet Daniel Thompson.

“‘Blessed are the homeless, for they shall inherit the street,’” Goodman read. “‘The sidewalks, the bushes, the cold, cold ground. Whatever falls from heaven. Pennies of rain, of snow.’”

Rev. Nozomi Ikuta led the group in a prayer, but not before commenting on the unusually warm late-December weather. In the winter just before the pandemic, Ikuta fought the city of Cleveland to keep a shelter open at her church, Denison United Church of Christ.

“It’s my hope and my prayer that, just as we’re getting some warmth today, we continue to have warmth in our hearts,” she said. “Let our hearts not be frozen. Let them be warm with caring and compassion.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.