CHICO — In spite of the rain, dozens of large white signs with names printed across them stood tall over a large crowd gathered Tuesday night near the Chico Municipal Building surrounding a wooden coffin with a wreath hung on it.
The names printed were those of homeless people who have recently died.
Dozens of residents attended a candlelight vigil held outside of downtown Chico, many of whom were close with the deceased, to share stories and discuss the urgency of the homeless issue in the city.
The event was organized by a local group with Juan Araujo heading it.
“This event was something that was created by the National Homeless Coalition,” Araujo said. “On Winter Solstice, which is the longest night of the year, they hold the Homeless People’s Memorial Day.”
Araujo was one of many speakers at the event, both planned and improvised with those who have lost someone who was homeless getting a chance to tell their story. A flag without a name on it was presented to represent those who have died and were not identified or still undiscovered.
“These are people that we knew, that we worked with, that were our friends,” Araujo said. “And we have friends in the camps right now that are vulnerable to being a name on these flags.”
Tona Petersen, a local homeless woman and one of those who spoke during the event, was there to honor her husband and friends that she has lost. Petersen has been homeless for nearly three years and is staying in the Comanche Creek area.
“It’s miserable conditions on the best of days,” Petersen said. “But we’ve got a good group of people, other homeless, and we do what we can.”
Petersen spoke on the importance of outreach as well as events such as the candlelight vigil.
“We count,” Petersen said. “We’re tired of going to the hospital and them automatically assuming that because we are homeless we are after drugs or are alcoholics. So they can do the bare minimum and get them out.”
Melys Bonifacio-Jerez was another of the organizers of the event and could be found helping gather the signs at the end of the event and making sure the area was clean.
Though there were many signs with the names of those who have died in Chico, Bonifacio-Jerez said the names were only of those who died from 2020 through 2021.
“Unfortunately, there are probably more names out there, and the year is not over,” Bonifacio-Jerez said. “So due to this weather, and because there has been flooding at places like Comanche Creek and Lost Park, I would not be surprised if we hear more names before the year ends.”
Many of those attending the event were homeless and representing their friends.
“It’s important because these are names of people that live in our city,” Bonifacio-Jerez said. “And the only difference between me and those folks is that I have a roof over my head and they do not. And it’s important because as a community, we need to take care of each other. And if there are people who are living in the street, who don’t have access to their needs, then we are failing as a city and we’re failing as a state and as a country.”
Araujo works with the Chico Democratic-Socialists of America to conduct outreach with the homeless population and provided information on how to help such as mutual aid.
“We provide people with the things that they need which are as basic as toiletries, deodorant, razors and shaving cream.,” Araujo said. “We provide them with shelf-stable grocery and pantry items, we provide them with clothing donations which people in the community donate or items that we might purchase like beanies and gloves. Things like that.”
Petersen said those who can’t donate can offer kindness.
“Remember to be kind,” Petersen said. “One kind word to a homeless person, one kind act, could save their life and turn everything around. Just ask them how they are doing. Offer them a cup of coffee. Just one small action could change their entire world.”