Vigils Honor Homeless People That Died on the Streets

Vigils

A picture of Valarie Wertlow who passed away earlier this year


Nearly 1,000 People Remembered in LA During Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

“Death has come to the steps of city hall,” former rapper and pastor of Skid Row Church, Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie said. On Friday, community members from Skid Row and others marched from San Julian Park to city hall, where just a few days earlier, an unhoused man was found dead. On average three homeless people die every day in Los Angeles.

Darrell, Valarie, James, Shericka, Shanna, Freddy, Miranda, Chuck, Rodney, Shirley, Gustavo, Daniel, Janice, Drew, David, Mike–a banner honoring just some of the many names behind the numbers, marched with supporters in Downtown. Similar banners were represented throughout Los Angeles, as other vigils were held across the city in Venice, Hollywood, Koreatown and Echo Park on Friday.

Homeless persons’ memorial day is held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. In Los Angeles, homeless deaths have been rising with the growing homeless population over the last decade. In 2018, more than 1,000 unhoused people died in Los Angeles, more than double the amount that lost their lives six years earlier. No fact better illustrates the severity of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. People are literally dying at rates similar to genocide, many from preventable causes. On Friday though, community members strived to highlight the people and stories behind those numbers.

Vigils

LAPD tails demonstrators as they make their way to Skid Row after leaving city hall

On their way back to Skid Row from city hall, organizers were tailed by the LAPD.

Patrol cars squeezed by people and blocked off intersections to make way for a group of over 50 demonstrators. The presence of law enforcement highlighted the contentious relationship between the LAPD and unhoused community.

The group eventually landed at 6th and San Pedro where earlier this year partners Darrell Fields and Valarie Wertlow both lost their lives. The pair had been together for over two decades.

Vigils

LA CAN director, Pete White addresses the crowd at 6th and San Pedro in Skid Row on Friday

Fields was a popular musician in Skid Row known for playing guitar and drums. “Better than Jimi Hendrix,” LA CAN Director Pete White said of Fields’ guitar chops. Fields was tragically burned to death in Skid Row this past August, a violent month for LA’s unhoused community.

More recently, Fields’ partner Valarie Wertlow passed away near the same corner. Wertlow was also a talented artist, her and Fields could often be heard making music together on 6th street.

On Friday, Charlene, an unhoused resident of Skid Row spoke about the loss of Fields and Wertlow. “We need to let America know we’re not trash; we need to let them know that we are people. We’ve got families, we got kids,” Charlene took a break from making tacos to address the crowd. The Skid Row cook can usually be found making food near 6th and San Pedro. “Before you judge us, get to know us. This is my family, Downtown Skid Row,” Charlene said before she left to go attend to her tacos.

Organizers hold a banner depicting some of the names of people that died while living on the streets in 2019

Organizers hold a banner depicting some of the names of people that died while living on the streets in 2019

The sounds of singing and chants echoed down 6th Street as the caravan moved on to honor more community members that lost their lives in Skid Row.

Later in Echo Park, an intimate group of advocates and unhoused residents in the community gathered in front of the lady of the lake statue at Echo Park Lake, as the sun disappeared from the downtown Los Angeles skyline and the rats began to stir.

Jedd Parriott, a lifelong Angeleno and founder of Street Watch L.A., opened the ceremony. “For far too long, we hear about these homeless deaths that keep going up every year and we rarely hear the names and see the faces of the human beings that were lost. They are not a number, they are people,” Parriott said.

Parriott detailed his relationship with Shanna, a local Echo Park unhoused resident that helped convince Parriott to start Street Watch L.A. two year ago.

“As soon as I asked her about police and sanitation, she had so much to say to me. It was shocking actually. She said, ‘you absolutely have to start Street Watch, and I’ll help you.’”

Today Street Watch L.A. is a collaboration between advocates and unhoused residents that monitors and documents sanitation sweeps. “She needed health care services and instead the city gave her citations.”

Shanna was one of the many homeless people that was in desperate need of health care services according to Parriott. Eventually Shanna passed away in a hospital due to heart failure at the age of 39 years old.

Heart failure is the leading cause of death among homeless people in Los Angeles.

This year, the unhoused community of Echo Park lost several of its neighbors.

Also, at the vigil on Friday, Edna, the sister of Freddy Contreaus, Jr., spoke about losing her brother earlier this year. An emotional Edna said she and her brother grew up in Echo Park. Freddy, Edna and Shanna were all good friends. They were like family. “He was 49, almost 50–didn’t make it,” Edna concluded in tears.

Later the group moved to the shore of Echo Park Lake behind the statue. One by one they lit candles and said the names of people that died this year out loud, mimicking a traditional Japanese ceremony that intends to deliver the spirit back to the elements, but with their own spin on it. “The fire of their spirit will be burning here, they will be seen, they will be heard until justice is done,” Parriott concluded. Over a dozen lanterns floated on the mirror-like surface of the lake.

After the ceremony, the group quickly dissipated into the night. Advocates went back to their homes while the unhoused went back to their tents.

Lorraine addresses the crowd outside of city hall before singing a beautiful ballad to honor those that lost their life this year

Lorraine addresses the crowd outside of city hall before singing a beautiful ballad to honor those that lost their life this year


self portrait point mogu march 2018

Lexis-Olivier Ray

     

Lexis-Olivier Ray is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles and a regular contributor with L.A. TACO.

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