Honoring the (Unremembered) Homeless

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Cemeteries are the guardians of memories. They also may become channels of warmth in these darker, year-end months, especially as families commemorate Dia de Los Muertos or celebrate the Winter Solstice.

Memorial to the Homeless

Memorial to the homeless; photo courtesy of Primavera Foundation

So says the Primavera Foundation, dedicated since the 1980s to providing assistance, food, emergency shelter, job skills, homeownership & financial capability, neighborhood revitalization and other advocacy work for the area’s homeless and low-income citizens. For nearly three decades, the Primavera Foundation also has held a memorial service at the Pima County Cemetery — intending to respect the memories of children, men and women who died without a home and who are buried in the Public Fiduciary plots.

According to Jenna Van Laningham, Primavera executive assistant who has helped manage the memorial service over the years, it is important to create this space, to remember those who have passed away while homeless:

“People who remember and honor our memories after we pass away (usually) are our friends and family, those whom we have forged relationships with,” she explains, and this contrasts with what happens with the homeless. “Often folks experiencing homelessness are disconnected from family and also sometimes friends, for a variety of reasons. Hence, the memorial helps us honor the memories of people who likely may have no one else to remember them.

“Everyone deserves dignity in life and in memory. The state of being homeless is very stigmatizing and therefore people live in the shadows. That stigma allows the wider community to ignore the injustice of the issue. So the memorial that Primavera hosts also helps the community remember that homelessness is a deep injustice that we must continue to push against….”

Homelessness in Pima County

On any given night, there are approximately 5,000 people in Pima County experiencing homelessness, Jenna continues: “It could be a teen staying on a friend’s couch, or a family doubled up in an apartment, or a couple living out of tents in a wash, or a family or single person staying in a local shelter. In January 2014, HUD’s point-in-time count found 578,424 people experiencing homelessness in the United States. Although the actual number is more than likely higher than that, it is still a staggering number.”

Memorial Service for the Homeless

Memorial service at the Pima County Public Fiduciary lot; photo courtesy of Primavera Foundation

Other groups around the country, mostly in cities, also put together Homeless Memorials on or around the Winter Solstice. “The idea is to hold it on the longest and coldest night of the year,” says Jenna. In Tucson, the memorial is held outside at the Pima County Public Fiduciary lot on the west side of Evergreen Cemetery (Pima County’s “pauper’s” cemetery). From the cemetery association records: The Court Street Cemetery, also known as Tucson City Cemetery, was in operation from 1875 until 1909. This cemetery replaced the Alameda-Stone Cemetery, which was closed in 1884. When the Court Street Cemetery was closed in 1909, many of the remains were transferred to either Evergreen Cemetery or Holy Hope Catholic Cemetery. Many of the older graves on site at the Pima County Cemetery were relocated there around 1916. The County purchased land to handle the responsibility of burying unknown men, women and children, as well as immigrants who died in the desert, homeless who died on city streets, and people whose relatives have no financial means for another form of burial.

One of Primavera’s founders, Nancy Bissell, remembers the beginnings of what has become an annual memorial service in Tucson: “I think we started it before 1990. I seem to remember that we were doing it between the time we opened the Men’s Shelter in 1987 and Five Points in 1989. Those first couple of years were kind of ad hoc and spontaneous, and we drove homeless people to the cemetery along with some folks from Casa Maria.”

Jenna has been involved with helping to plan the Primavera memorial every year for the past nine years, and each year she takes away something different from the experience: “Each speaker has such a different perspective and voice. I am always struck by the physical difference between the front of the cemetery, where there are many large established trees and plants, and the back of the cemetery where Public Fiduciary’s plot is located. There are no trees and very few bushes; it is not as aesthetically pleasing as the front. The grave markers are very simple and there are many for children.”

Memorial Service

Memorial service at the Pima County Public Fiduciary lot; photo courtesy of Primavera Foundation

As the sun sets during the service, it often gets cold and windy, Jenna recalls, adding, “But, again, that helps us remember the deep injustice of homelessness.”

This year the memorial will be held on Friday, December 18th, from 4-5:30pm. Primavera’s partners in this service include the Pima County Public Fiduciary’s office and Evergreen Cemetery.


  • To learn more about the December 18 service, visit the Primavera Foundation website, http://www.primavera.org/ or call (520) 882-5383 or jvanlaningham@primavera.org.

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