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Homeless who died in 2018 remembered in New London, Norwich

December 22, 2018

A soft note from a handheld gong echoed in a courtyard outside St. James Episcopal Church in New London on Friday after each of 22 names was read aloud.

It represented the number of homeless or formerly homeless individuals who had died over the past year in the New London area. Candles were lit for each during a service inside the church.

Friday’s remembrance, which included songs and prayers, was part of the annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day service held each year in locations across the country on the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

From one of the back pews at St. James, 68-year-old Lavonne Gardiner spoke up to remember Stanley Jacovich, a friend who died in a fire inside a boarded up, condemned home on Eastern Avenue in New London in 2017.

When the two met, Jacovich was homeless and struggling with severe alcohol addiction. She was living out of her car at the time. While she said he had gotten some help from local community services, Gardiner said Jacovich had given up after the death of his wife.

“He would ask me, ‘Am I dead yet?’ Like he was waiting to die,” she said. “But he had a good spirit and I miss him. We need to address this cycle of addiction.”

Similar stories and remembrances were shared during a service at the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen in Norwich, where eight people were remembered. As Father John Van Haelen read their names, St. Vincent volunteers held balloons with a glow stick attached to the ribbon and released them into the rainy, windy night.

The New London service was sponsored by the New London Homeless Hospitality Center and St. Francis House. Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London shelter, said the shockingly long list of names is a tragedy but also an indication that the homeless are better connected to the community and outreach efforts are working.

“In the early days, people would die and we wouldn’t know about it,” Zall said. “I look at this as evidence of the relationships that have been built. It is not because more people are dying.”

Zall shared her sadness about the death of Juan Burgos earlier this year, a man who was in and out of homelessness but not homeless at the time he killed himself.

Zall said the only comfort she could take was that “he knew he was loved and that we tried.”

“I know that he knew we were there for him,” she said.

In Norwich, about 30 people gathered to remember three military veterans, a mother of two children, one former New York cab driver who loved to tell stories of his days in the cab, and several who “touched the lives of many,” as one memorial write-up said. They ranged in age from 29 to nearly 71.

Judi Gaudet, director of systems of care for Generations Health Centers, led the ceremony for the 15th and final time in her career. Generations partners with St. Vincent throughout the year to provide health services to patrons and to reach out to homeless people in the region.

On Jan. 23, 2018, volunteers throughout New London County counted 271 homeless people during the annual one-night census of the homeless population. The numbers have gone down over the years, Gaudet said, as the region’s Community Care Team — a model approach to providing services to people at risk of becoming homeless — have worked to find housing for many homeless people.

Several of those who died this year had spent time living on the street but were housed at the time of their death, Gaudet said.

But problems persist, she said. Homeless people die from exposure to the weather, from illnesses that go untreated, violence and accidents.

“Everyone is human,” she said to those attending Friday’s memorial service and the fundraiser dinner that followed. “We need to make sure everyone knows that.”

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation minister Rev. Carolyn Patierno, who spoke at the New London service, said those being remembered had stories of “hard luck, trauma, addiction, abuse, broken relationships and poverty, but really at the heart of every one of these stories is homelessness.”

She credited the New London Homeless Hospitality Center for its work in moving people from the streets into their own homes.

“As complex as the stories themselves may be, finding a home is the first part of a long-term solution,” Patierno said. “We keep hope at the center of tonight’s gathering. Hope that our most vulnerable neighbors will be sheltered in the broader community’s care and concern.”

g.smith@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com 

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