New London - On April 6, 2006, five days after the emergency winter shelter at St. James Church was closed for the year, a homeless man named Bill Walsh died in Bates Woods in Waterford, just across the New London line.
Since that day, the number of people in the area who have died "too young, either directly or indirectly from their homelessness" has grown to at least 20, advocates for the homeless say.
At 6 p.m. today, the first day of winter and its longest night, they will be holding a "Homeless Persons' Memorial Day" service at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Huntington Street to remember those who have been lost.
"We know of nine people that have died this year," said the Rev. Emmett Jarrett, who lives and works at St. Francis House and is on the board of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, Inc. "We will read the names of people and say what we know about them, and have an open mic and allow people that knew them to come up and talk about them."
The list of those who have died includes "anyone who passed through the St. James or Covenant shelters at any point, and/or anyone who lives, or has lived, in the area woods who dies during the year," said Nora Curioso, who keeps the list and who provides legal representation to the homeless, helping them to get their Social Security and other benefits.
"Honestly, I didn't know when I started it - and I started it so I wouldn't forget - that I would be the keeper of such a tragic list," she said Friday.
Bill Walsh's death in 2006 was followed by that of Danny Worobel, in October of that year. Worobel died in his tent in Bates Woods, and his death prompted advocates to open the winter shelter one month early.
The shelter has stayed open ever since.
Curioso remembers that the first memorial service was conducted that December, with Worobel's death fresh in everyone's mind.
When they conducted the second memorial service in 2007, they knew of two men who'd died that year: Richard "Scoobie" Bell, who died of a drug overdose behind the pump house on Bank Street, and Frederick K. Finn, who was hit by an elderly woman driver.
"That year, in addition to remembering both of them," Curioso remembers, "everyone at the service called out names of people they knew who had died. That was when I started formally writing them down."
The manners of their death are as various as were their lives.
Curioso's list shows that six men died in 2008: Robert Jasperson, who hanged himself at the Westerly train station; Lester Osbourne, the circumstances of his death unknown; William Williams, who died in an apartment shortly after getting housing; Peter Dill, who broke his back while doing construction work at a friend's home; Andrew Fox, who drowned; Larry "LaLa" Ager, who died shortly after finding housing; and Richard "One-eyed Rick" Perry, whose body was found across from the New London library.
"In 2008, we had a huge, separate memorial service at the St. James Shelter for One-Eyed Rick," Curioso recalls. "He was enormously popular, a piano-playing character who had been irreparably damaged years earlier in a car accident. Rick died - literally - holding a voucher for housing in his hands."
She remembers that she fought - with his most reluctant cooperation - to get him his Social Security benefits.
"Probably still my happiest memory working with homeless people was the day I found out Rick got awarded SSI," she said. "He and I cried. We laughed, we cried, we jumped up and down - all on State Street."
As of Friday, Curioso's list included the names of nine men who have died this year: Tom Robert, Emanuel Diggs, David Price, Mark A. Galvin, Frank Hempstead, Chris Machaud, Richard Danko, Ron Backus and Louis Hernandez. And there may, she said late Friday, be a 10th name to add to that list.
Death overtakes some of these men, Jarrett said, even after housing has been secured for them, the disease of alcoholism or drug abuse following them there. Galvin was such a case, he said, a man who died after getting an apartment.
Carolyn Patierno, the minister of All Souls, will lead the service; Kit Johnson will provide the music, and there will be refreshments afterward: desserts and coffee provided by the soup kitchen, Jarrett said.
The public is invited.