By Michele Marchand and Anitra Freeman, WHEEL/Women in Black

The Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL) is a non-profit and non-hierarchical group of homeless and formerly homeless women working on ending homelessness for women. Women in Black is a partnership between WHEEL and the Church of Mary Magdalene which provides homeless and formerly homeless women a safe environment to build relationships, experience hope and love, explore faith, and develop strength to reach their full potential.

Tree of Life sculpture and gathering place in Victor Steinbrueck Park, part of the Homelessness Remembrance Project

The WHEEL/Church of Mary Magdalene Women in Black Solstice vigil starts at sunset (4:20 PM) this Saturday, December 21st, at the Tree of Life at Victor Steinbrueck Park north of Pike Place Market, then will process silently through the Market to a 5-6 PM Silent Vigil at Westlake Park (4th/Pine). Food and fellowship follow the vigil. (Photo: “Tree of Life” by Clark Wiegman)

Fourteen years ago, determined that no one would die unremembered, WHEEL/Church of Mary Magdalene Women in Black started standing vigils whenever a homeless person died outside or by violence in King County.  The first year, we stood for five people.  This year, the death toll is already  51.

Homeless people die young here—at an average age of 48—and often of horrible causes: suicide, drowning, fire, stabbing, shooting, hypothermia.  Sometimes people are found dead of natural causes or overdose under the freeway, in a greenbelt, or at a suburban strip mall.  Sometimes we know the person for whom we stand, but these days, most of the time we don’t.

Women in Black have stood for 504 men, women and children since our vigils began.  Our now-annual Winter Solstice Vigil, for all the year’s deaths, starts at sunset this Saturday at our Tree of Life in Victor Steinbrueck Park.

Unrelenting darkness deadens the spirit and tempts us to hibernate, hide, go underground, avoid, deny –  to feel like the light will never come.  This time of year, coming into the Solstice, it’s easy to feel this way, and the temptation to avoid or deny is also true for folks who wonder how we, Women in Black, can continue to stand and stare down the darkness as grief accumulates, vigil after vigil.

Often, people who pass by put their heads down, walk a bit faster, refuse to look at us, don’t take a vigil leaflet, even (especially?) when told what we’re standing for.  One year, the Solstice vigil was asked to move further away from the holiday carousel, because (according to the person who made the request) our focus on death was putting a damper on the downtown holiday shopping season.

Sometimes we, ourselves, want to turn away.  Bearing witness to this accumulation of grief and these hard deaths is very difficult.

But for personal and perhaps spiritual reasons, we’ve decided not to deny the darkness, so we stand again and again.  It seems paradoxical, but, for us, facing the darkness deeply and completely allows the light to come in and for joy and healing to be possible.

If not for our vigils, we wouldn’t have persisted in creating the Homeless Remembrance Project, its beautiful Tree of Life sculpture and gathering place in Victor Steinbrueck Park and bronze Leaves of Remembrance in sidewalks throughout the city.  Names on our Leaves—representing real people who were loved and who had a place here—cry out for justice, and tell the human story over and over again.

If not for our vigils, we wouldn’t have learned of many amazing individuals—flawed, broken and beautiful—or met and comforted so many wonderful families and friends.

"Leaves of Remembrance," created by the  Homelessness Remembrance Project, bear the names of homeless men and women who have died on the streets in Seattle, so that everyone will have a place to be remembered.

“Leaves of Remembrance,” created by the Homelessness Remembrance Project, bear the names of homeless men and women who have died on the streets in Seattle, so that everyone will have a place to be remembered. (Artist: Clark Wiegman)

If not for our vigils, we wouldn’t have recommitted to our work, together with many other people of good will, to create more shelter, to keep fighting until all of us have a safe place to sleep and call home.

We’re not interested in blind optimism – the kind of optimism that doesn’t give darkness its due. 

But we ARE committed to an optimism that’s hard-won, that wrestles with darkness and defies it by answering, “This is not enough.”  Join us.

The WHEEL/Church of Mary Magdalene Women in Black Solstice vigil starts at sunset ( 4:20 PM) this Saturday, December 21st, at the Tree of Life at Victor Steinbrueck Park north of Pike Place Market, then will process silently through the Market to a 5-6 PM Silent Vigil at Westlake Park (4th/Pine).  Food and fellowship follow the vigil.

For more information or to get on our vigil notification list, contact WHEEL at (206) 956-0334, email wheelorg@yahoo.com, and visit www.homelessremembrance.org, www.fallenleaves.org, or The Homeless Remembrance Project site on Facebook.