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Memorial service recognizes O.C. homeless

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 lives of people who had lived on the streets of Orange County — and perhaps died there too.

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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 as well as executive director of HomeAid Orange County, an Irvine-based nonprofit that aims to end homelessness, and chair of the county's Commission to End Homelessness.

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

"We wanted to make sure that their lives were honored even in their death — that they matter," said Gina Seriel, an event organizer as well as founder 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; Rev. Nichelle Madrigal, a clergy member at international Buddhist community Shinnyo-en in Yorba Linda.

The service was the first of its kind in Orange County, according to organizers, who included representatives of Sisters of St. Joseph, and took place on National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. Organizers say they plan to make it an annual event.

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," said Pheland, adding that she also came out to market her self-help book, "The Brighter Side of Homelessness."

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

"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. There are people who don't have anything," Mermelstein said.

Regarding the ceremony, Mermelstein said she " was in shock" upon hearing names that she recognized.

Then she considered the loneliness that marked their lives and their deaths.

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Nuran Alteir is a contributor to Times Community News.

Twitter: @whatnuransaid

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