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Memorial dedicated to homeless who have died on the streets

Local advocates for the homeless Wednesday launched the longest night of the year with the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to those who have died on the streets merely for lack of adequate shelter.

The outdoor memorial rests in the earth at Memorial and Paderewski drives, just feet from the Matt Urban Hope Center, where Karen Carman serves as director. During Wednesday's service, which included a candlelight vigil, Carman described homelessness as a social tragedy.

"We have men, women, children, veterans, the elderly homeless, [all] living on the street. We have people with mental disease living outside unable to fend for themselves," said Carman.

"To make matters even worse," she added, "the homeless are so very often victimized, targeted victims of crime, hate crimes, which have been on the rise the past decade."

Carman and about 40 others sought to draw attention to the plight of the estimated 8,000 Erie County residents who lack either consistent and substantive housing, or any housing at all.

The service came a week after a man who may have been homeless died in a fire that was touched off inside a long-abandoned Sycamore Street house. The victim, police said, had been in and out of rehab programs for people with drug or alcohol problems.

"The mayor's Clean Sweep report identified 220 properties that appear to have squatters that occupy them. A lot of the squatters come to the Hope Center," Carman said.

"Aside from victimization, homelessness is also recognized as a risk factor for death," she said. "Repeated studies show the rate of death among homeless, compared with the general population, is significantly higher."

Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, said Erie County has identified about 400 people who are sometimes compelled to seek housing in abandoned properties or take their chances living in doorways or under local bridges.

"You'd think that a country with our resources, we could house 400 people. The Congress just passed a $1 trillion budget. We could solve this problem here in Buffalo with just $5 million," Zuchlewski said.

Before introducing a choir dubbed the Buffalo City Mission Disciples, the Rev. Michael Robinson, director of the Men's Mission at the Buffalo City Mission, recalled the names of some of those who perished while struggling to survive on the streets this year.

"These are people that we knew, that came from among us and died in a homeless state," Robinson said. "For some, they're statistics, and for some, they're just names. But they're people whose smiles and laughter brightened up some of our days. Some of their sorrows and some of their pains, we shared with them."

Meanwhile, the Matt Urban Center for Outreach Efforts is accepting donations of blankets that will be dispensed to the homeless.