HELENA – Friday, Dec. 21, was the winter solstice – the first day of winter, and the day with the longest hours of darkness. Every year, Helena community members gather on that day for the “Longest Night” ceremony, to honor people who died while homeless.
The annual event is organized by YWCA Helena.
“We feel the need to do this event with the Helena community because we don’t want anyone who’s homeless or transient to be forgotten,” said Kiley Gage, YWCA Helena’s grants manager and volunteer coordinator.
More than two dozen people gathered in Women’s Park for the ceremony. Gov. Steve Bullock read out the names of eight people who died while homeless this year. For each name, a rose was placed in a memorial bouquet.
For almost 30 years, Longest Night memorials have been held in communities around the U.S. on the first day of winter, as a way to bring attention to the needs of people dealing with homelessness.
“We hope that individuals will be able to give recognition to those in our community who are less fortunate,” said Jessica McManus, a YWCA Helena board member and chair of its Social and Racial Justice Committee.
Bullock said he has taken part in the ceremony each year he has been governor. He said it’s important to remember homelessness affects communities around Montana.
“The holiday season for so many of us is a time to get together with family and sit in front of a warm fireplace, but I hope it’s also a time for us to reflect on that not everybody in our communities has that opportunity,” he said.
He thanked community organizations like YWCA, the Friendship Center, Helena Food Share and God’s Love for the work they do to serve people in need. But he said more can still be done to address the issue.
“How wonderful would it be if at some point, we could say, ‘This whole event’s canceled,’ because we didn’t have anyone die while homeless in any given year?” he asked. “I think that’s something we should all strive for.”