Homeless Calgarians who have died on the streets were commemorated with a new memorial to their loss on Wednesday.
During the unveiling ceremony, more than a few tears were shed by members of the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s Client Action Committee.
The unveiling represented more than seven years of work to provide a permanent space to commemorate and remember.
“For people who passed away on the streets, because we failed them and giving them dignity during life, that this is the one thing that we can do, at least upon their passing is to give them this last thing,” said Nigel Kirk, a participant with the committee.
The memorial consisted of three art pieces. A pair of standing murals, a cast representation of a backpack and coffee cup, and a memorial bench.
Creating a sanctuary for those living on the streets
Kirk readily said that the spot given to the memorial by the city did not have any inherent significance to the homeless community.
Yet considerations were given to how the memorial was designed in order to make it a sanctuary for the homeless.
The bench was designed to be slept on, avoiding hostile architecture designs seen elsewhere in the city. The memorial site also provided cell phone chargers.
“We wanted to make sure that this was a safe place for the homeless community to call their own, and we’re really hoping Calgarians, and we’re really hoping that the City of Calgary, can respect and honor that as well,” he said.
Outgoing Councillor Evan Woolley said during his remarks that he has already seen Calgarians use the space prior to its official opening.
“Over the last couple of weeks I’ve biked by and I’ve seen people spending the time here alone, and I saw someone just crying sitting on that bench about a week ago,” he said.
“It’s doing the job that it’s supposed to do and I wanted to thank everybody for this process.”
Woolley said that 13 Avenue SE has a deeper purpose to the Beltline community. The road was built to allow walking and connection within the community.
“It’s very wonderful that it is here and in this space,” he said.
A reminder that all Calgarians deserve dignity
Kirk said he hopes the memorial sparks a greater understanding of homelessness in people who see it.
“I really hope that people start to see this and start to understand that people who are homeless are human beings worthy of dignity, love and respect just as much as anyone else,” he said.
Teresa Conroy visibly broke down into tears while laying her flower over chalk words that said “you are loved + missed.”
After the ceremony, she said that it was over the loss of her friend who had died of an opioid overdose. Her friend developed an addiction after injuring her back while caring for her disabled son. She said she didn’t learn of the addiction until after her friend’s death.
Conroy never shared with her friend that she herself had become homeless because of the shame she felt.
“We were friends 37 years and I shared my innermost secrets with her, and so I hid my homelessness,” said Conroy.
She said that guilt, shame, and shaming that comes from being marginalized or homeless was a nightmare.
“I was a fundraiser, a mother, a soccer coach, right. If someone told me that I was going to be homeless I’d be like ‘are you out of your mind? That’s not going to happen to me.'”
“And it did,” she said.
Work still to be done to end homelessness
Patrica Jones, President and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, said that the memorial should serve Calgarians as a reminder of the work that needs to be done.
“We must continue to strive for a day where homelessness is rare and non-recurring, perhaps a dark brief chapter in someone’s life, but never a condition that defines one’s life and never ever something that contributes to their passing,” she said.
Even the cold weather of the morning did not go without notice.
“It gives you a sense of what the people we serve deal with minute in and minute out, and often the kind of weather in which they pass into the next world.”