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Church holds annual service for deceased homeless

  • MARK LADAO / MLADAO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Rev. TJ FitzGerald of Central Union Church helped place ornaments bearing the names of deceased people considered homeless when they died on Christmas trees during the Saturday night service.

    MARK LADAO / MLADAO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Rev. TJ FitzGerald of Central Union Church helped place ornaments bearing the names of deceased people considered homeless when they died on Christmas trees during the Saturday night service.

  • MARK LADAO / MLADAO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, participated in “The Longest Night” service Saturday night.

    MARK LADAO / MLADAO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, participated in “The Longest Night” service Saturday night.

About 40 people attended a Saturday night service at Central Union Church to commemorate the deaths of over 100 people who died on the streets of Oahu or in homeless shelters in 2019.

The fifth annual serv­ice known as “Blue Christmas” or “The Longest Night” was held during the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

About 120 light blue ornaments, each bearing the name of a deceased person considered homeless when they died, were placed on three Christmas trees positioned in the church chancel, and the names on the ornaments were called out individually as they were.

As of Friday the Honolulu medical examiner had reported 94 people who were considered homeless or who did not have a permanent address when they died, although by Saturday organizers of the service added more names.

“We got some more phone calls from folks who either knew people who passed away that were homeless or friends or relatives that they knew were homeless or through the hospital system,” said Laura Thielen, executive director for Partners in Care, a nonprofit on Oahu that primarily does work to help with homelessness.

The 94 deaths reported by the medical examiner is the highest in the past five years.

Office of Housing Executive Director Marc Alexander said the upward trend was disturbing and noted that the average age of death of those considered homeless is under 53, nearly 30 years fewer than the average life expectancy in Hawaii.

“This is one reason why we do not want people to be unsheltered on the streets. This is why Mayor Caldwell pushes ‘compassionate disruption,’” Alexander said, referring to Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s policies to limit homeless people’s occupation of public spaces.

Causes of death varied from drug use to disease to poor hygiene.

The Rev. Brandon Duran, who has led the service every year that Central Union Church has held it, said the blue theme of the service represents mourning. He prefers “The Long­est Night” title and the service being held during the longest night of the year: It serves as a time of reflection during the holiday season for those who have lost a family member who was homeless.

“It’s a loss that’s magnified this time of year,” Duran said. “Our hope is that grief isn’t something that is hidden.”

He also said the winter solstice can serve as a reminder of hope because after Saturday the nights begin to shorten.

“The light comes a little bit sooner,” he said.

The Honolulu Medical Examiner said 467 people considered homeless have died on Oahu since 2014. Those numbers could be an underrepresentation, said Alexander, because there may be others who died on the streets but were not counted by the medical examiner.

HOMELESS DEATHS ON OAHU

No. Year

94 2019*

90 2018

70 2017

78 2016

63 2015

72 2014

Source: Honolulu Medical Examiner

* as of Dec. 20

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