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Memorial service honors 193 homeless people who lived and died on Orange County’s streets

Candles were placed for those who died living on the streets in Orange County this year.
Candles were placed for those who died living on the streets in Orange County this year.
(Nuran Alteir)

One by one, 193 names were read as volunteers carried candles to the front of the chapel at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.

The interreligious memorial service Wednesday evening was intended to bring dignity to the people who had lived on the streets of Orange County — and perhaps died there too.

Ultimately, the names that were called out outnumbered the candles.

“These people who were homeless may have never had a service, may have never had their name recognized,” said Scott Larson, an event organizer and chairman of the county’s Commission to End Homelessness.

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Data from the Orange County coroner’s office show that homeless deaths have been rising. In 2013, 118 homeless people died. In 2015, that number was 181. This year’s tally so far is 193.

“We wanted to make sure that their lives were honored even in their death — that they matter,” said Gina Seriel, an event organizer and executive director of Our Father’s Table, a street outreach nonprofit. “There were several people, friends of ours, that were on that list that did pass away.”

The name reading was followed by prayers from religious leaders including Muzammil Siddiqi, religious director of the Islamic Society of Orange County; Rabbi Frank Stern, president of the Orange County Interfaith Network; Jasjit Singh, of the California Sikh Council; and Rev. Nichelle Madrigal of international Buddhist community Shinnyo-en in Yorba Linda.

The service, which took place on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, was the first of its kind in Orange County, according to organizers.

Some of the 200 who attended the memorial were people who had worked with the homeless. Others were part of the homeless community themselves — like Eileen Pheland, 51.

She has spent the past six winters at the Fullerton Armory and said she felt compelled to go to the event because she’d had friends who died while living on the streets.

“It’s a shame,” Pheland said.

Prayers concluded with a poem by Cecile Mermelstein, 52, who for years didn’t have a particular place to call home. Now she’s living at Founder’s House of Hope in Artesia.

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“Everyone deserves a home,” she said.

Mermelstein said she was impressed by the turnout.

“I think it’s good that they’re doing this because there are still people here on the streets, and they need help — especially at Christmas time when everybody thinks they have everything they need,” she said. “There are people who don’t have anything.”

Nuran Alteir is a contributor to Times Community News.

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