How homeless remembrance finally found a Seattle home

After a long struggle, Seattle may be the first city to offer permanent places of remembrance for its deceased homeless citizens. What public memorials tell us about art, activism and how we deal with death.
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Leaves of Remembrance and fallen leaves outside of the Seattle Justice Center

After a long struggle, Seattle may be the first city to offer permanent places of remembrance for its deceased homeless citizens. What public memorials tell us about art, activism and how we deal with death.

On an overcast Wednesday earlier this month, around 50 people gathered at Renton’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery for the funeral of 154 King County citizens whose bodies were either unclaimed or whose loved ones lacked the resources to provide an individual burial. Their cremated remains were buried in separate containers in a mass grave, marked by a stone with the epitaph: “Gone but not forgotten, these people of Seattle June 2012.”

The funeral was the sixth "indigent burial" ceremony in King County since the county Medical Examiner’s office began helping to organize them in 2003. The ceremonies are held once every two years and each grave holds the remains of about 200 people. This year’s ceremony was the first at which all names of the deceased were read aloud.

One of those names was Walter Connelly, who died in February 2011 at the age of 55 while living in permanent housing at McDermott Place in Lake City. Connelly’s name will be read aloud again this Saturday (June 16) when a bronze maple leaf engraved with his name and dates of life will be installed in the sidewalk in front of the Seattle Mennonite Church in Lake City.

Connelly’s leaf will become one of 69 “Leaves of Remembrance" placed in Seattle in the past year by the Homeless Remembrance Project, devoted to commemorating the lives of homeless people. Their vision is twofold: to honor and memorialize individuals through bronze leaf installations scattered across the city, and to create a community gathering place in a bronze "Tree of Life" sculpture that will be installed in Victor Steinbrueck Park at the north end of Pike Place Market this September. Taken together, organizers believe, the leaves and Tree of Life set a precedent as the world’s first permanent, civically sanctioned homeless memorial.

The Homeless Remembrance Project came out of Women in Black, a group of women from the homeless-organizing group WHEEL (the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League) and the Church of Mary Magdalene, who in 2000 began holding silent vigils honoring citizens of King County who have died outside or by violence. In 2003, the women decided these one-hour vigils were not enough. “We hand out these flyers and they’re either turned away or they’re read and then tossed away and for many people, this is it,” says Carol Cameron, a member of WHEEL and chairperson of the Homeless Remembrance Project Committee. “We saw this vision, this need for a place of remembrance for homeless people.”

The installation of the Tree of Life gathering place this fall will mark the culmination of the Homeless Remembrance Project’s nine-year struggle with city departments, commissions, and fundraising, the paperwork vestiges of which fill a tower of cardboard boxes in the WHEEL office.

It’s not difficult for most people to accept funerals as a basic human dignity, but when personal memorials enter the public sphere the issue becomes more complicated. Take the case of roadside memorials commemorating the victims of drunk driving, the spontaneous appearance of which has led 23 states to adopt official policies regarding their requirements and removal. Washington state has a DUI sign program that requires a formal application process before a permanent, state-sanctioned sign may be placed.

Had the Homeless Remembrance Project chosen to erect temporary structures or to place their memorials and gathering place on privately owned land — in the yard of a church, say, or on the grounds of a local shelter — they might have easily completed an installation within as little as several months. But homelessness is a public problem that throws people's live into extreme instability. The group knew that if their project was to have the desired impact, it had to be both permanent and public.

The project committee narrowed the locations down to a list of 10, and Victor Steinbrueck Park — recommended to the group by his son, Peter Steinbrueck, a City Council member at the time — was the homeless community’s overwhelming choice. In 2006, after receiving a resolution of support from the City Council, the group eventually won the approval of the parks department under the condition that “it may not include the names of the dead, as this would create a ‘cemetery feeling’ that parks cannot accept.”

The group understood the city’s stipulation, but was unwilling to give up the recognition of individual names that had been the driving force behind the project. “It’s a person’s name, it’s what left,” says Cameron of the Homeless Remembrance Project. “And it’s something physical that you can reach out and touch and trace the letters. And I think everyone deserves something like that, whether or not they’re homeless.”

Unable to evoke the names on the park grounds and facing other city regulations, artist Clark Wiegman — along with fellow design team members Karen Kiest and Kim Lokan — eventually came up with the concept of a rooted tree sculpture, with lost leaves scattered across the city. “The leaves would be our ability to memorialize and commemorate individuals and also to spread the message so it was something that was really in the fabric of the city,” says Wiegman.

Wiegman’s concept ultimately underwent three re-designs to meet the criteria of the Market Historical Commission. Nonetheless, in 2009 the commission unanimously rejected the Homeless Remembrance Project's proposal for a certificate of approval — a type of decision that is rarely overturned. But despite the commission’s claims, the group knew that everything in their design — from the proposed landscaping to the building materials — was in keeping with the original design of the park. In 2010, with the help of attorney G. Richard Hill, they won the impossible verdict: The Historical Commission’s rejection was overturned and the Tree of Life would go forward after all.

The success of the project in the face of seemingly endless bureaucracy is a testament both to the organization’s determination and both the city and community’s support. “Even people who were kind of obstructionist would all say, ‘This is very moving,' " says the Rev. Pat Simpson, a United Methodist minister formerly at the Church of Mary Magdalene. “It has touched people’s hearts.”

The Tree of Life is made up of two bronze, petal-like structures, riddled with cutouts that are smaller in size but otherwise identical to the bronze maple leaves scattered on sidewalks throughout the city. Michele Marchand, WHEEL organizer for the Homeless Remembrance Project, says that if you focus on the statue’s negative space you’ll see the outline of another tree, leaves tumbling to the ground. The structure bends toward the totem poles looking out over Puget Sound and rises out of a round glass plaza through which the park’s original landscape is visible underneath. A network of roots that glows green at night reaches down from the tree and extends under the glass, emphasizing connection and rootedness.

“It’s not just for the homeless community, it’s a thing of beauty for the city of Seattle, housed and homeless alike,” says Cameron.

Wiegman’s design calls to mind a host of images — dragonfly wings, the skeletons of decomposing leaves, a whale’s fluke. Wiegman says he also considered the image of a pair of caring hands, or two tattered sails: “There’s that idea of the migratory experience that the homeless deal with every day and in their lives.”

The memorializing Leaves of Remembrance are placed in locations that bear particular significance to the community members represented on the leaves. Real Change vendor Robert Hansen’s leaf is on the sidewalk where he used to stand and sell his papers outside of the Seward Park PCC, and 15 women are commemorated in the cluster of leaves outside of the downtown Angeline’s/YWCA Opportunity Place Center for women. “The community kind of spills out the door,” says Simpson.

A less-visible component of the memorial is the Leaves of Remembrance website, which functions as a sort of virtual graveyard, with a searchable database of names where friends can post stories, pictures, and messages about and for the deceased. Wiegman says that people have come from as far as Florida to see the leaves of relatives that had been lost to them until they found their names on the site.

The Leaves of Remembrance component of the project falls into a larger context of street memorials, which often function dually as sites to express private grief and promote public activism. Lizette Larson-Miller, an adjunct professor of Liturgical Leadership at Santa Clara University who studies public — particularly spontaneous — memorials, has found that while the memorials themselves take different forms, the deaths they commemorate have something in common: they are nearly all unexpected, sudden, and — most importantly — preventable. Because of this, a commemoration of one individual's death becomes a broader consideration of the societal factors that may have caused it.

The Homeless Remembrance Project's Simpson says: "As a religious leader working in the community and working with these women, every time I’ve gone back to the sites to stand there and read the names it brings back memories. It has worked for me as someone who knew individuals. It’s a little different for the public in general; it will have the impact of bringing those deaths of homelessness to consciousness in a shocking way.”

The many layers of the project made fundraising a challenge, since potential donors didn’t know what to make of it — was it an art piece? social activism? a memorial? The dual purposes also tend to ignite negative responses from those who feel that such memorials function more as accusation than remembrance, or who simply resent being faced with reminders of mortality in everyday spaces.

Larson-Miller sees the growing presence of public shrines as a symbol of a larger change of consciousness in the country’s approach to mortality. “Something that has really shifted in the United States since 9/11 is that ability — or maybe it’s forced — to confront the reality of death,” says Larson-Miller. “I would hope that out of that is not only a maturation, a growing up of the U.S. population’s view, but also that [message of] treasure life, deal with life now.”

Wiegman and the rest of the project’s design team drew inspiration from a wide range of public memorial efforts, including Gunter Demnig’s “stolpersteine” or “stumbling blocks,” cobblestone-sized memorials scattered in cities across Europe that honor individual victims of Nazism. The Leaves of Remembrance, too, act as stumbling blocks: small sidewalk obstacles that wake the city up to the larger obstacle they represent.

“Sometimes the apathy of the individual is what stops our politicians from doing these things — from taking these positive steps and funding a shelter,” says Cameron. “In the meantime the number of leaves is growing. The number of leaves falling off the tree is growing.”

But with the community rallying around the Tree of Life comes the hope that those leaves may someday be gathered. “As much as it speaks to the fallen it speaks to the living too,” says Wiegman. “How can we make change? How can we change this so we no longer need a homeless memorial.”

Wiegman’s words echo the vision of Ken Alhadeff, one of the Homeless Remembrance Project’s earliest private financial supporters, who imagines that he will one day be able to stand in Victor Steinbrueck Park and say to his grandchildren, “Here is a monument to a problem we no longer have.”

The Homeless Remembrance Project will be remembering  Walter Connelly and 13 others in a leaf installation ceremony this Saturday, June 23, at 3 p.m., in front of the Seattle Mennonite Church in Lake City. 


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