Over and over again, he witnessed the slow decay before the light left their eyes.
Their deaths manifold, but always in the quiet shadows of Orange County.
They, the homeless, were Tim Houchen’s friends and neighbors during his destitute years.
As he watched years ago from his humble dwelling in the sprawling homeless encampment at the foot of the Santa Ana Civic Center, he thought about the loneliness and futility of that particular brand of dying.
“You start to get the sense that the flesh and the spirit don’t die at the same time,” Houchen said. “A lot of times, these people’s spirits are gone months before their bodies pass. It’s really sad to watch, especially somebody that you care about.”
Houchen, 59, now living in an Anaheim apartment, has become an advocate for the homeless, heading the organization Hope4Restoration.
On Dec. 21, his group will hold events to commemorate the more than 200 homeless people who died this year in the county as part of the national Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, also termed the Longest Night.
“We come together on the winter solstice because it’s the shortest day of the year for most people, but the longest night for the homeless,” Houchen said.
There will be memorials and an art show at three different venues.
A military tribute will be held for deceased homeless veterans at Civic Center Plaza County Hall of Administration in Santa Ana. Houchen said the event is the first time deceased homeless veterans will be honored in the county.
There will be a color guard, possibly a 21-gun salute and state Sens. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) and John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) are scheduled to speak.
The deceased homeless will then be honored during a ceremony at the Anaheim Cemetery. The keynote speaker will be state Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton).
Houchen said he’s planning a visual aspect to the homeless memorial to help people grasp the magnitude of the 200-plus deaths. Last year, he fastened gravestone-shaped cards with the names of the dead onto a fence.
This year’s event will likely be more sophisticated considering the evolution of the memorial ceremony.
Houchen first came across the national event while studying in the law library next to the Civic Center encampment.
“I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to pay tribute and raise community awareness,’” Houchen said.
He and his group of friends gathered at the Civic Center in 2013 for the first time memorializing the comrades they’d lost that year.
Since that time, Houchen has sought to improve the memorial.
“It gives people that have so much a moment to think about people that have so little,” Houchen said.
An art show will also be featured as part of the memorial at the Melisa Finds Gallery in Santa Ana. Minister and artist Joshua Correa, 36, was commissioned by Houchen to organize the art show.
Correa said the exhibition will feature three types of artwork: Commemorations of the homeless who died, works from professional artists exploring homelessness and art by homeless people.
Correa, community engagement director at Well of Life Church in Placentia, has been teaching art classes at the Bridges at Kraemer Place homeless shelter in Anaheim for about a month. The artwork gleaned from those classes will be used in the memorial exhibit.
Houchen escaped homelessness in 2015 after about four years on the street. Now living a modest life with his wife in an apartment, he can’t help but feel some shame for his rescue.
“I suffer from survivor’s guilt,” Houchen said. “I was fortunate to get into permanent supportive housing. At the same time, I had friends — their images pressed in my mind. These guys, they needed a place just as bad if not more than me. I am the lucky one.
“If they’d been given the same opportunity, I can’t help but think some of those 200 folks would have lived.”
The images of the deceased homeless that Houchen has known over the years hold true in his mind. This year was no different; others he once knew passed on.
He’ll remember them, but how will the community receive their deaths?
Houchen hopes the memorial will provide the county’s residents with a sense of the suffering and loss of life endured by homeless people. In accomplishing that feat, their quiet suffering won’t be futile.
“We are honoring their memories, and by remembering them by name, we kind of make it that their suffering and lives aren’t in vain,” Houchen said. “We are telling the public about this serious crisis. I think that’s what they would want.”
Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day schedule:
10 a.m. Dec. 21: Military tribute for deceased homeless veterans at Civic Center Plaza County Hall of Administration, Building # 10, 333 W. Santa Ana Blvd.
3:30 p.m.: Memorial for the deceased homeless of the county at the Anaheim Cemetery at 1400 E. Sycamore St.
6 p.m.: Homeless art show at Melisa Finds Gallery at 201 N. Main St., Santa Ana