One might expect a solemn, serious atmosphere upon entering Detroit’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul for its 8th annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day Service. The event, which fell on December 21, honors those who lived and died on Detroit’s margins. These are people who didn’t have a funeral—maybe because there was no family to claim them or anyone to even notice the fact that they passed on. But the gathering isn’t solemn or serious at all. In fact, it has a certain kind of energy to it, a joy that’s shared by everyone in attendance and can be seen on their faces and heard in their words.
The City of Detroit has more than 2,000 inhabitants who identify as homeless. This time of year, when the weather gets cold, it’s physically, emotionally, and spiritually more difficult for those who are homeless to feel warmth and love. That’s why the holidays are an essential time to acknowledge and care for those less fortunate. That’s the mission of Advantage Health Centers (AHC), the organization that facilitates the memorial service each year.
Advantage Health Centers partners with local organizations like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Cross Complete to open the doors to Detroit’s homeless population. Volunteers and community organizers join in and the entire group recites names and lights candles in honor of those who have passed over the last year. Volunteers then serve healthy, hot meals from the Dorsey Culinary Academy and distribute donated clothing and hygiene kits to all that attend.
“There just aren’t that many places in the region that provide all the services the homeless need,” said Nina Abubakari, executive director of AHC. “Our sites offer medical, dental and behavioral health services. They’re staffed by all types of practitioners who are ready and willing to take on new patients.” This annual memorial is a chance to get the word out to existing homeless persons so they can sign up for the care they need (appointments can be booked at 313-416-6262 and walk-ins are strongly encouraged).
“A lot of people that come don’t have vaccinations, so that’s an added bonus for the 2017 memorial,” said Blue Cross community affairs representative Christie Laster. “Along with the vaccinations, they have the opportunity to schedule a wellness visit.”
Abubakari noted that neither she nor her staff and partners focus much on the difficult stories that caused people to need their services. This is a time where the focus is on the “now,” to make sure visitors are fed and cared for and the community recognizes the issue. At the same time, AHC, Blue Cross and other groups can identify ways to be even more effective in providing care and bringing attention to the issue.
For the Very Reverend S. Scott Hunter, Dean and Rector of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, the ability to bring together health centers and the needy gives them a unique role in the community they serve. However, the emotional value of the event goes well beyond that. “This gives the homeless a chance to celebrate and recognize people they cared about and who made a difference in their lives,” says Dean Hunter. “It’s a safe, supportive space to grieve in a healthy way.”
“This gives the homeless a chance to celebrate and recognize people they cared about and who made a difference in their lives.”
For the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and others, there is an innate calling to feed the hungry, clothe the cold, shelter the shelter-less and to genuinely care for those in need. The memorial service is an opportunity to do that in a broad and meaningful way—a way that encourages the broader community to be involved, and stay involved, so that one day there is less of an urgent need to hold an event like this.
When asked if Dean Hunter had one remaining message to share with Michiganders, he said this: “Many hands make light work; there’s always room for others to pitch in and help.”
Explore other ways Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and its partners have collaborated to address critical community health needs this year:
- Beyond the Card: Delivering Health and Hope to Flint
- Beyond the Card: Coming Together to End Michigan’s Opioid Epidemic
- Beyond the Card: Nurturing the Next Generation of Healthy Kids
Photo credit: Mike Miller