In a blustery and bitter cold not unlike that which has killed seven homeless people here this winter, advocate for the homeless Mitch Snyder and about 50 other mourners stood yesterday before modest coffins bearing the remains of two homeless persons in a public funeral across the street from the District Building and two blocks from the White House.
The dead were an unidentified woman who died of exposure Jan. 7 in a basement on Ninth Street NW and Henry Dixon, who died of exposure Jan. 2 in a parking booth on G Street NW.
On Friday, Snyder won the right to claim their remains for use in the funeral when the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by a U.S. District judge who said he could see no legitimate interest on the part of the District government to withhold the bodies. City officials had refused to release the bodies, contending that Snyder's plans for a funeral were indecent and would result in a "public spectacle." Because of the court battle, the funeral was postponed from Friday.
At noon yesterday in 20-degree temperatures, mourners on Western Plaza carried white crosses bearing the names of homeless people who have died. They also carried flowers, and between the two coffins, which lay on tables draped in black, some of them held a large sign that read, "Forgive us."
"Why forgive us? Because we failed these people," said Snyder, who was wrapped in a yellow blanket.
Snyder, director of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, said he was "appalled" that the city tried to block his efforts to claim the remains after neither family nor friends of the dead had stepped forward.
He urged city officials to say "they're sorry for letting the people freeze to death." Snyder's group has contended that not enough shelter is available in the city. The city has denied the allegation. City officials did not attend the funeral.
Snyder likened the funeral to those held for John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "The only difference is these are poor people, homeless people," he said.
The Rev. William Wendt, an Episcopal priest, delivered eulogies and led the crowd in readings of the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer.
Dean Lubnick, 21, a religion student at George Washington University, told those gathered that he had stayed on Western Plaza the night before to experience what it feels like to be homeless during the winter. He described the soreness in his knees and his difficulty breathing in freezing temperatures.
"I only hope that we never again have to stand in vigil for our brothers and our sisters," Lubnick said.
Wendt declared the ground holy.
"And as the good book says, in the Old Testament, when you're on holy ground, take off your shoes. So I'm going to invite all of you, just for a moment, it will help to identify with what we're doing, take off your shoes and stand in silence."
In stocking feet they stood silently for a moment, then members of the Inspirational Voices, a choir from Mother Dear's Community Center on Florida Avenue NW, began singing "There's a bright side somewhere . . . . "
The mourners formed lines, between which the pallbearers carried the coffins to a mortician's van. Snyder said the bodies would be taken to a crematorium and the ashes would be placed in urns that would be kept by CCNV. The organization has accumulated the remains of scores of homeless people during the eight years it has been claiming the unclaimed dead.
Ron Bias, 36, a resident for two years at the CCNV shelter, watched the service and said, "Luck's got a lot to do with it, knowing how to survive. They didn't have any luck. Maybe their luck ran out on them."
Said Iris Woodridge, a choir member, "It could be me. No one ever knows what the future holds."
Across the street near the entrance to the District Building was a spray of white flowers draped with a black sash. "In memoriam," it said. Inside the building gates, a man lay in a heap of blankets. When roused, he poked his head up and said his name was Rocky. He said he was warm.
Snyder predicted that with temperatures plummeting, "More people are going to die probably this weekend."