By Michael Walker
As the sun set for the longest night of 2023, Wednesday 21 June, an annual ceremony was held to commemorate the lives of homeless men and women who died in the previous year.
In Martin Place, in the shadows of the Reserve Bank and the “big four” banks, the human cost of Australia’s housing crisis was counted.
Emeritus Bishop Terry Brady was joined by Dame of the Order of St Sylvester, Patricia Thomas, to read aloud the names of several dozen homeless persons who were known to have passed away.
Bishop Terry at one point paused and noted that the list was incomplete, as he knew personally the names of individuals who hadn’t been included.
The memorial service was started by the End Street Sleeping Collaboration in conjunction with the PAYCE Foundation and the Justice and Peace Office, with the support of late Catholic Cemeteries CEO Peter O’Meara.
It is an opportunity for the community to remember and honour lives lost and to grieve for all individuals who have died on the streets, or in shelters, over the past year. The terrible truth is that many homeless people who pass away receive no other memorial.
Dominic Sullivan from the PAYCE Foundation said is was a “unique opportunity to remember and celebrate the lives of those that died without a home, and often without a commemoration.”
“Our aim is to remember them. The aim of the End Street Sleeping Collaboration is to bring attention to the plight experienced by so many people sleeping rough, and to ensure no-one should be living or dying on our streets. As a community we need to understand that homelessness is solvable.”
Fr Peter Smith from the Justice and Peace Office reminded those in attendance that “we need to hold these people in our hearts just as our loving God has called each of us by name and holds the departed homeless in the palm of his hand.”
NSW Minister for Housing Rose Jackson MLC was also in attendance. This year, the organisers additionally called on Sydney Local and State Governments to implement a uniform nation-wide “code red/code blue” emergency response protocol for rough sleepers in extreme weather events.
If in place, such a protocol would reduce the risks to rough sleepers from extreme heat or cold, by connecting them with support services and providing additional services including extended operating hours or additional shelter options.
“Code red/code blue” protocols have been adopted in other cities, including Adelaide. The triggers are extreme heatwaves or nighttime temperatures below six degrees.
Sydney’s temperature reached 5.3 degrees on the morning of the homeless memorial; if such a protocol were adopted, it would have been in effect on that very day.
The Archdiocese of Sydney has, through the End Street Sleeping Collaboration, been instrumental in gathering real time data on homelessness leading to both better care for, and advocacy on behalf of, those sleeping rough in our city. On this, the longest night of the year, Sydney was asked to pause and remember the forgotten.