Sixty-eight homeless people who died in shelters or on the streets of Oahu this year will be recognized tonight, the longest night of the year, at the fourth annual “Blue Christmas” event.
Thirty-one of the homeless who died were clients of the Institute for Human Services, a record high.
“It’s been a tough year for us,” said IHS spokesman Kimo Carvalho.
The Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction Center also reported a record-high number of client deaths this year: 17.
Tonight’s event at Central Union Church’s Atherton Chapel is intended to honor those who died and to allow their friends and social service caseworkers mourn them.
The service will honor each person who died, including Natalie Thiel, who was known as “Bus Stop Mary” or “Crazy Mary” to the military service members who walked and drove past her every day and night outside the fence line of the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet command.
Her backstory remained elusive following her death in July.
The names of Thiel and the 67 other homeless people who died this year will be inscribed on Christmas ornaments that will be hung on Central Union Church’s Christmas tree.
>> What: Memorial for the 68 homeless people who died on the street or in shelters this year
>> When: 6:30-8 p.m. tonight
>> Where: Central Union Church Atherton Chapel, 1660 Beretania St.
>> Other: Chili dinner served after the service by Touch a Heart Catering
IHS will use shuttles to transport homeless clients from three of its shelters to the service.
Seven of the IHS clients died in just the last month, including a woman who died of a drug overdose in an IHS shelter after sneaking in drugs, Carvalho said.
Her death hit the shelter staff especially hard. Two staff members, in particular, “were bawling,” Carvalho said.
They created a memorial for her at the shelter that included her picture.
“They build a connection and attachment to the clients,” Carvalho said. “Our staff this year has suffered quite a lot. This event isn’t just to recognize the client and honor their lives and show that there is dignity still with their name; it’s also an opportunity for our staff to grieve and come together and memorialize these people that they took care of.”
While the term “chronically homeless” is often used, Carvalho said it belies the severity of many clients’ medical conditions.
“We’re talking pancreatic cancer, advanced diabetes, heart diseases, stroke,” Carvalho said. “These clients cannot be on their own, and they need intense daily supervision and health care.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said, “Many of these individuals were disconnected from friends or family, but they were members of our community. There’s not always an obituary notice that’s run in the paper when they die.
“For the outreach workers and even for the staff of the state, we get to know a lot of these people by name,” Morishige said. “When they’re no longer there and you hear what happened to them, it does hit you very hard.”