Everyone has a story.

There was Roy, the “old-school hippie” who always wore a big smile; and Randy, who just wanted to enjoy a cup of coffee in a quiet backyard; and Jeremiah, who was tall and kind, and lavished love on his tiny orange kitten.

They all lived in Long Beach, and they were among at least 111 people who died over the past year without a place to live.

Roy, Randy, Jeremiah and the rest of those whose names are known were remembered and honored on Thursday at the Long Beach Homeless Memorial service in a chapel at Forest Lawn.

Organized by the Long Beach Homeless Coalition, the service takes place annually to pay respect to people who may have few loved ones, or none, to mourn their passing. About 60 people came to hear some words of reflection, a few personal anecdotes, and the reading of a list of their names as a votive candle was lit for each one.

Candles are lit for each of the 111 homeless people who died in the city of Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
Jeff Levine, of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, gives the opening prayer and reflection. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Paul Duncan, the city’s Homeless Services Bureau manager, said the average age of those who died homeless in Long Beach in the last year was 48 1/2. Accidental drug overdoses were responsible for about half of the deaths for which the coroner determined a cause, but suicide, homicide, accidents and health issues exacerbated by being on the streets also claimed lives.

The collection of 111 names read at the memorial is almost certainly incomplete, since there can be a lag in official reporting, and some people die in a hospital or other setting where their housing status is unknown.

And as the homelessness crisis in the city, the region and beyond has worsened, the memorial lists have been getting longer. At the 2019 service, 57 names were read, and last year there were 94.

Daniel Brezenoff, senior clinical director at Lutheran Social Services Long Beach, told mourners Thursday that they may have imagined their own passing in a positive light: dying at home, in bed, surrounded by family and friends.

“Maybe you’re surrendered to whatever may come, but I feel confident none of us want to die alone, on a sidewalk, or in the back of an ambulance — anonymous, forgotten, unwashed, unwanted.”

Christina Prado wipes a tear as the names are read. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
Paige Pelonis, of the Long Beach Homeless Coalition, stands next to a table where 111 candles were lit for the homeless who died in the city this past year. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

As funerals do, the service brought some tears, but also a few laughs — and it made some important memories.

As past homeless coalition president Steve Be Cotte put it, even if the names read Thursday are forgotten, the people they belonged to “will live on inside you because you’re here.”

The lives they lived were unique, homeless coalition member Paige Polonis said, and while it’s difficult to really know what someone else is dealing with in life, “we can all at least attempt to understand, we can all want to know — and I think that’s the heart of empathy.”