Five years ago, Nigel Kirk and his friend Randy Pages decided they were going to start meeting on Dec. 21 of each year to remember those who died while homeless in Calgary.
That day is called the Longest Night.
Kirk, who had spent nearly nine years living on the street, said they’d change locations for the memorial every year, but now they’re looking for a permanent place to honour those who have died.
In partnership with the Client Action Committee of the Calgary Homeless Foundation and the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, a Go Fund Me page has been set up to raise money for a permanent installation in the downtown core.
Kirk said one of the most important reasons for the dedicated space is so that others in the homeless community are able to pay their respects when they hear of someone passing. Often times funeral services are during the day and they can’t afford to take a day off.
“It’s kind of important to have a space where someone can just go to honour their memory when they hear about it,” Kirk said.
“A physical, permanent memorial would also be a way to raise awareness about the fact that homelessness is killing people.”
According to information on the Go Fund Me page, in 2017 at least 132 people who were experiencing homelessness “died due to natural or traumatic causes.”
Dr. Jessica Shaw, assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work, researched end-of-life care for people who were marginalized or experiencing homelessness, and she found there was a need for such a memorial.
“Really, this is one of those instances where I feel like I get to be a bit of a mouthpiece for to push this project – but it’s not my project, this is a community project,” she said.
While the group is currently in negotiations with the City of Calgary’s Parks department for a space near the downtown, nothing has been set aside for the project yet. They’re hoping to get a space that’s on or near the free fare zone for the LRT, to improve accessibility.
They been in contact with a group in Edmonton, where they have a homeless memorial, and through that they’ve been able to estimate the cost of the memorial to be around $50,000. They are applying for other grants to help fund the projects, but they want to see a literal and figurative buy-in from the rest of the Calgary community “as something they see as necessary within our community and something that we want.”
Shaw said the vast majority of decisions are being made by members of the homeless community and they want the space to be inviting.
“We want to have a space that is welcoming and that it invites or draws people in with a piece of public art, or perhaps a labyrinth or something,” she said.
“We also want it to be a place to rest. In negotiations with the city we want to make sure there are benches where people can truly rest. So, none of this punitive architecture where there’s a divider in the middle of the bench so someone can’t lie down.”
They’d also like a plaque that describes the purpose of the space. It’s not yet clear if names will be inscribed somewhere on the monument.
While they hope to have the permanent location locked up by this year’s Longest Night memorial, both Shaw and Kirk recognize that it may take longer.