First published in the Dec. 25 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
In life, Geoffrey Warwick was known for his love of Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
In death, Warwick was remembered for his happy moments, many of which were spent singing those bands’ songs in a car with Raymond Cole, his case manager with Ascencia. Cole and another colleague were tasked this week with eulogizing the seven men and women who died this year as Ascencia worked to extract them from homelessness.
“I started tearing up and thinking about all the stories and memories I have with these people that I worked so closely with,” Cole said. “It’s just hard to know the journey has ended for them.”
In addition to Warwick, Ascencia’s case workers remembered the lives of Joe Pineda, Ciriaca Macario, George Murray, Porfirio Ruiz, Michael Drinkard and Karl Koenigsmann. Once living on the streets, all seven were in some level of housing this year when they died.
In observance of National Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day on Tuesday this week, Ascencia — the Glendale nonprofit that handles homeless outreach and response throughout the area — held a memorial service for the individuals at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
For the occasion, there was a candle lit for each of the lives lost from a community that oftentimes die alone, without recognition at all.
“The flame that burns bright is a memory of that person, whose lives meant something and are never forgotten,” said Deacon Ron Baker of Holy Family Catholic Church. “We will always deeply treasure them in our hearts.”
Along with Cole, case manager Robert Smith eulogized the departed, sharing some of their closely held memories with the people they knew firsthand. In remembering Warwick, Cole spoke about bonding over music on the streaming platform, Pandora.
“Geoffrey Warwick was really into music,” Cole said. “He didn’t open up much, but when he did, he did so with passion and in-depth knowledge.
“He actually cried in the car and told me that I changed his life, because he was previously in a facility all alone and didn’t have anyone to talk to and said he was thinking about ending it all,” he added. “We shared a lot of happy moments, singing songs together.”
When Cole took his seat during the service, he said emotion washed over him.
The duty of a case manager is incredibly challenging, said Smith, who thinks that might be the most rewarding part — working with members of the unhoused community toward a more hopeful future. He likened the process to the Southern saying: “It’s slower than molasses in winter,” but said getting to the other side of homelessness with individuals is well worth the challenges and obstacles.
“From the outside it looks so easy — you find somebody, get them in the shelter, work with them, get them housed and life should be wonderful,” Smith said, “and it just doesn’t always work that way. I think that’s the most frustrating part.
“Their lives mattered,” he added. “They meant something to someone, somewhere. They are not to be cast away or forgotten, and I think it’s really important to recognize that there was value to their lives and what they brought to the world.”
The event was made possible by the cooperative effort between Ascencia’s Development Department, case management staff, city funders and community, who all came together to share information about those they knew who had died.
Laura Duncan, the executive director of Ascencia, detailed how homeless people are at greater risk of infection, chronic illness, poor mental health and substance abuse. With a mortality rate four to nine times higher than housed people, they have an average lifespan of 47.
“I would much rather be celebrating people moving into housing and not becoming so ill on the streets that they pass away,” Duncan said, “but in reality, there’s not enough housing available and there are situations where they find themselves experiencing homelessness and unfortunately, one of the consequences of that is premature death and the best thing we can do for them is give them a proper send off.”
Duncan said the number of homeless people who died in Los Angeles County in 2018 and 2019 was 1,047 and 1,039, respectively, according to the County Department of Public Health’s annual report. There was a 30% increase in 2020, bringing the death toll to 1,383. Duncan added there is an average of five people experiencing homelessness dying in the county every day, which would potentially equate to 1,825 deaths this year.
“They die in parking lots, on sidewalks, in hospitals, in their vehicles, on train station platforms, on benches and in encampments, some in their teens to well into their 80s,” she said. “Some die violently, while others pass away of natural causes, drug overdoses, suicide, by accident and since the pandemic began, from COVID-19 infection.”
As illustrated this week, simply finding shelter isn’t always enough — all seven individuals were being housed when they died. Depending on how long a person lived on the streets, those myriad health issues can often follow them.
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, in speaking Tuesday, recalled how little homelessness was discussed a dozen years ago, while it has become one of California’s most pressing issues today. She lamented that the state and county responses to the crisis have not been enough, in spite of billions of dollars in funding.
“It’s more than a memorial service for seven people,” she said. “It feels like it’s a memorial that represents what we know has been happening in our midst for many years, which is tens of thousands of people being homeless and sleeping on the streets and thousands of people dying. And this is the great shame of Los Angeles and the great shame of our state.”
State Sen. Anthony Portantino concurred with his legislative colleague this week.
“These aren’t seven strangers,” he said. “These are our friends, our neighbors, our wards, our responsibility.”