On Wednesday, Dec. 21, a memorial vigil was held at Petkovich Park in downtown Jackson, honoring those who have died while living without shelter in the past year.
National Homeless Persons Memorial Day is an annual event created by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) in 1990 “to remember those who died during the year without housing,” according to NHCHC.
The somber holiday takes place each year on Dec. 21, or the winter solstice in North America, known as the shortest day and longest night of the year. Each year at the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere, the sun is at its southernmost point and travels the shortest path across the sky. Because of this, there are fewer hours of daylight on this day, which also means it’s the longest night of the year.
“At these events each year, we remember those who have died and we strengthen our resolve to work for a world where no life is lived or lost in homelessness. We state clearly, together with others in scores of communities across our nation, that no person should die for lack of housing,” reads online information about the event.
Organizers in Amador County took part in the nationwide event for the first time this year, gathering at the small public park in Jackson just days after a homeless member of the community, a 50-year-old man named Josh Lee Parker, was found dead in his tent.
Organizers Trixxie Smith and Tyx Pulskamp had recently learned of the event and planned to participate in 2023, but after Parker died, they decided to go ahead with the idea this year. According to Smith, Parker’s autopsy showed that he died of a long-term heart condition.
Smith and Pulskamp both work in community-facing roles in Amador County. Smith is on the Amador County Homeless Task Force and is a patient's rights advocate, as well as a peer support specialist at Sierra Wind Wellness & Recovery Center in Jackson, and also provides “street ministry” through her church, Seventh Day Adventist.
Pulskamp works at his family’s farm-to-fork restaurant in Jackson, Rosebud’s Cafe, and is the Outreach Specialist for Operation Care, which provides resources and services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Amador County.
Pulskamp explained how the recent death “of our neighbor Josh” acted as a catalyst for the event, the first of its kind in Amador County.
“Our friend Josh was found dead. He died overnight in his tent here in Jackson,” explained Pulskamp. He continued, “When something does happen, we are all moved to action, and so we decided to gather here this evening.”
Josh wasn’t the only unhoused Amador County resident remembered on Wednesday. Several who had gathered spoke fondly of Karl Luke Ours, a man who died in December of last year while sitting on a park bench in Pine Grove. Ours’ aunt, who was at the event, spoke of her nephew, who was a skilled carpenter and had helped build her house and many others in the area.
Holding back tears, she said, “He was a gentle soul, he was a nice guy. But he fell on bad times and it’s a shame. And it hurts where he passed away, it really hurts. There was nothing available for him,” said the woman.
She continued, “I’d like to thank the homeless task force for taking on the task to try to provide for these people because they so desperately need it. I give you all of the love that Luke would have given you.”
Pulskamp suggested that the man’s life had likely touched many in the community where he lived, saying, “I imagine that a lot of people in Pine Grove, whether they gave him a ride or tried to talk themselves out of giving him a ride, or whatever their circumstances were—that he is in the heart of Pine Grove, and that will continue on.”
Pulskamp opened the vigil by welcoming those who had gathered, asking them to form a circle and make eye contact with one another.
Pulskamp said, “I would just invite—eye contact can be very powerful and a smile can be very powerful and can go a long way when you’re outside all day and night. So when we look around the circle at each other, we can look each other in the eyes and just acknowledge each other’s humanity and the work that goes into coming together and making it through the day and through the night.”
Attendees were offered flameless battery-operated candlesticks to hold, as well as warm drinks and clothing.
Smith read a proclamation given by the Amador County Board of Supervisors the day before, on Dec. 20, which recognized National Homeless Persons Memorial Day in Amador County. The resolution stated, “Whereas, homelessness raises one’s risk of illness, injury and death; and Whereas, homelessness continues to be a serious challenge for many Amador County residents who have the right to adequate food, housing, clothing, safety and health care. ...”
Elected officials, local clergy, and members of the homeless population were invited to speak before Pulskamp led the group in song. The voices of about three dozen people mixed with sniffles, coughs, and the sounds of passing traffic from the nearby highways. The group sang acapella style to the first two songs, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Singing for our lives,” which has become an anthem for marginalized groups. A modern take of the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge over Troubled Water” was played over a portable Bluetooth speaker while the gathered crowd sang along.
Gatherers were also invited to share about someone they knew who had died while homeless. Pulskamp went first, saying, “I will go ahead and start with my good friend DaVinci Rembrandt, and I will leave it at that.” A woman from the crowd said, “I want to lift up the name of my good friend, Shane.”
Jasper. Ernie. Josh and DaVinci. Carrie. Vaughn. Becky. Elaine. Bryce Taylor. Luke. Leon Dyken. Fritz. Brandy. Karl Luke Ours. Vigil attendees spoke the names of those they’d lost, sometimes echoed by others.
A young girl accompanied by her family spoke up, saying, “My grandma died while she was homeless.” Her grandmother’s name, she told the group, was Elaine.
“So many of our friends who die without housing, also die without memorials or die without funerals or maybe a chance for their families to see them again, be with their body, process in that way and so every year we can get together and mourn those people all over because that closure is sort of open and so I think that’s why these type of events happen every year,” said Pulskamp.
Homeless residents of Jackson attended the vigil, with one woman named Launa speaking up to thank those who had shown up.
Launa said, “I just want to thank everybody, everybody for caring and loving us all that are struggling right now. … I appreciate you guys so much. … I can feel your hearts, it’s amazing.”
After the vigil, Launa spoke with the Enterprise about what the event meant to her.
“My heart is so warm from all the people coming out and doing this. I’m really thankful for all of their support,” she said.
Launa and another woman named Valera stay together, as it is safer for them than to be alone. Launa spoke of a “worrisome” group of kids whom she believes target the homeless community, and maybe even try to kill them. She says they come from bad homes and are lost, so she tries to talk to them. She also watches out for other homeless people in her community, despite having some scary interactions herself.
“It’s about, how can I help … how can I better that situation without affecting it in a negative way,” said Launa.
“We take care of each other up there though, we can rely on each other with anything,” said Valera.
The two, encouraged by Pulskamp, want to start a homeless women’s group, to show that they can still contribute to society. The women were regularly attending city council meetings in Jackson until Launa says she was told she couldn’t come in, and she felt intimidated.
Valera hopes more people will treat them as human beings, which Launa echoed, saying, “You don’t have to enable people or anything, just care enough to not bump them off the sidewalk or something, or just be rude.”
In Amador County, there is no record of how many homeless people have died while living outdoors or without permanent, stable housing. Wintertime is especially challenging for those without housing, who have to combat illnesses, freezing temperatures, and rain and snow. Launa and Valera say that they’ve been threatened with jail time recently for using a propane-fueled portable heater to stay warm.
In larger cities, there are often many shelters or services available to those going without during the winter, but in rural counties, options are limited. Unfortunately for those without a home this winter, a lack of accessible warmth and shelter could mean death.
In a written statement after the event, Smith said, “Each person that has died unhoused and outside in the elements was a valuable human being who was struggling with life.”
Smith also encouraged compassion for one another and those who are suffering.
She wrote, “The opportunity to share with someone less fortunate gives honor to the blessings we ourselves have received. A smile, a kind word—these things are personal extensions of love that are free, but priceless. Sometimes the most important thing one can do in life is to acknowledge someone who only needs to be validated as a person. Connection is valuable. Give love.”
In Amador and Tuolumne counties, shelter and rehoming services are provided by Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency (ATCAA) and can be reached at (209) 223-9215 (Jackson shelter) or (209) 694-8698 (Sonora Shelter).
In Calaveras County, emergency housing services are offered to families through CalWorks and Health and Human Services and to domestic violence victims via the Resource Connection. Sierra Hope offers some services to those in need, such as the Emergency Housing Assistance Program which provides small grants to assist low-income households in danger of becoming homeless with paying utility bills or rent. They also provide supportive housing for some individuals who are homeless due to a physical or mental disability, and rent or mortgage assistance to those living with HIV or AIDS.
Calaveras County also has a Homeless Task Force and created a five-year plan to address homelessness in 2018. The plan includes a goal to develop emergency and transitional shelter and to increase “permanent housing inventory” and affordable housing within the county.
For more information on housing and other resources within the county, visit https://hhsa.calaverasgov.us/HHSA/Human-Services/Housing or call the Housing Specialist at (209) 754-6325.
This article has been updated from its original version.