Saturday marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It is an appropriate time to remember the homeless who have died in the Bangor area in 2013 — because though it may be the longest night, it also marks the beginning of the gradual return of the sun.
What might that sun look like to a person who is homeless? Perhaps a warm meal, a room of one’s own, a feeling of stability, freedom from addiction, freedom from violence. Perhaps it means the dignity of not having to die alone, worried no one will remember you as anything other than homeless. Perhaps it means not feeling, in your last hours, the weight of others’ indifference.
At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, Penobscot Community Health Care and Hope House will hold a vigil at Hammond Street Congregational Church to remember the approximately 10 people in Bangor’s homeless community who died this year. One was found in the river. Others succumbed to health problems worsened by time on the street. You can go to the vigil or help neighbors in other ways. You can decide for yourself how to fend off indifference.
There are many reforms we could encourage to end homelessness — such as a shift in the way the state approaches housing the chronically homeless or how the federal government allocates resources. We could talk about Maine’s failure to provide enough adequate psychiatric care or its constant struggle to protect victims of domestic violence. All of these things are important.
Yet they don’t quite get to the root of the complex social problem of homelessness, which is bound up in something so pervasive and intangible that it’s hard to see sometimes: indifference. Each homeless person who died this year was once a child who needed care. Somewhere along the way, or many times along the way, someone or something cut off the prospect of a brighter day.
It is easier to blame the victim than to turn inward to one’s self in the search for solutions. It is easier for people to think of the homeless as an abstraction. It might cause discomfort, after all, to see another’s hopelessness. It might disrupt life as one wants to know it. Society has figured out how to construct massive buildings, fly into space and prowl the ocean floor. It has spent billions electing politicians who mischaracterize and outright lie.
And yet more than one in five children live in poverty, and, in Maine, more than 7,000 children and adults are homeless each year. Some die alone. Do not forget the message their deaths send — that to be complacent is to be complicit in perpetuating the status quo.
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, spoke about indifference in a speech at the White House on April 12, 1999. As he put it, “Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.”