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436 Calgarians remembered during memorial service for people who died struggling with homelessness

There were 436 names read aloud at the annual Longest Night of the Year memorial Thursday night. Last year, 239 people were remembered.

“It’s staggering,” said Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO Patricia Jones. “It’s incredibly troubling. It is a reminder that we need to keep working at this.” 

Jones said 436 is the most people remembered in the nine years the ceremonies have been held — and she’s concerned what the future holds for the vulnerable population. 

“I’ll be frank with you, I’m very worried that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said.

“It’s a reminder that we do have deadly drugs in our city, we have deadly weather, we don’t have enough housing, and we continue to work with all levels of government and all our community partners to do the best that we can.”

After the names were read, one by one, a moment of silence was held. There were dozens in attendance at the memorial, which was held at the Community Living Room at Decidedly Jazz Dance Studio on 12th Avenue southeast.

The ceremonies are organized by the Calgary Homeless Foundation, and The Client Action Committee (CAC), a group of people with lived experience in homelessness. The Calgary Allied Mobile Palliative Program is also a partner of the event.

a woman wearing black speaks on a stage in front of several people.
Theresa Conroy, who spent over six years without a home and is now part of The Client Action Committee, spoke at the ceremony. (Taylor Braat/CBC)

Theresa Conroy spent over six years without a home and is part of The Client Action Committee. She works in the social sector and says she lost a long-time friend several years ago.

“She actually passed away and [we] found out it was from fentanyl, and I was stunned. I saw her two days before. One of the last things she said to me was ‘I love you,’ and I got in the car and I thought, ‘that’s weird. She never says it to me first. I always say it to her first’, and two days later she was gone.”

‘A lot of grief’

Conroy said the risk of death is an ongoing part of being homeless, and to deal with it, many become desensitized.

“It really is a lot of grief,”  she said. “I think part of that lived experience, too, is it doesn’t impact me as much because it’s something I’m used to.”

That sentiment was echoed by the founder of the Longest Night of the Year, Nigel Kirk. 

“A lot of us on the streets have kind of desensitized ourselves to it. We’ve kind of accepted that oftentimes it’s part of homelessness.”

But he says the ceremonies provide a sense of dignity and humanity for people who have died.

“That’s kind of why we need this place to be able to grieve and why we made sure that there is a permanent memorial, a reflection space. And I would love to see more reflection spaces in Calgary, not just the one.”

In 2021, a permanent memorial to commemorate those who have died while experiencing homelessness in Calgary was unveiled. It’s located at 107 13th Ave. S.E.

Jones said many of the people who died this year were living in shelters. 

The event’s website said the CAC acknowledges there could be more people who’ve died to homelessness in the past year.

“We recognize that despite our best efforts, there may be more individuals who did not have their names submitted.”

For many of the people remembered, this service is the only commemoration of their lives. All of their names are listed here.

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