Sun. Dec 5th, 2021

A permanent memorial to commemorate those who died while experiencing homelessness in Calgary was unveiled in downtown Wednesday.

The memorial is the first of its kind in Calgary and features a bronze sculpture of a backpack, a handmade wooden bench and murals by local artists. It’s located at 107 13th Ave. SEE

Those who visit the site are invited to mourn, pause, and reflect on the lives of those who have died.

“[The memorial is] important to me, “said Nigel Kirk at his unveiling.

Kirk is with the Client Action Committee, a volunteer-led advisory group whose members have experienced homelessness.

A poem etched on the side of the memorial was written by a Calgarian who experienced homelessness. (Dave Gilson / CBC)

The committee was one of the project’s main organizers, along with the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the University of Calgary, Calgary City, Canadian Artists Against Poverty, and several homeless service agencies.

“This is worth seven years of work, and it’s very touching,” Kirk said. “And it’s a way I know I can pay tribute to many of the people I love that I’ve lost.”

Section 8 Coun. Evan Woolley spoke at the unveiling of the memorial. He said that as a lifelong resident of the area, he counts many of the city’s homeless citizens as his friends and neighbors.

“I’ve seen them grow and seen their struggles over the years and seen many of them disappear,” Woolley said.

“We have monuments everywhere in our city for the rich and powerful. And I’m just really happy that we now have a memorial for those … who have lost their lives by being marginalized.

“They are our loved ones, they are our family members, they are our neighbors, and often they die alone.”

A significant shift

In Calgary’s early history, those who died unclaimed or abandoned were buried in “pottery fields.” Hundreds of people were buried under a small lawn in Union Cemetery, marked with a post that read “PF”.

The name comes from the Gospel of Matthew and is a reference to a public field where “foreigners” and outcasts were buried.

“Potter’s field … is an unmarked mass without a grave. And there are no tombstones, there are no tombstones,” says Jessica Shaw, an associate professor at the University of Calgary.

She researches end-of-life care for people experiencing homelessness.

These days, the city offers dignified funerals, but often does not have tombstones, she said.

Nigel Kirk, left, and Jessica Shaw, right. Kirk is with the Client Action Committee. Shaw is an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches care therapy for people experiencing homelessness. (Dave Gilson / CBC)

The memorial allows a place to gather and pay respect, and it will be cared for by the city.

“It’s a significant shift, and I think it’s a statement about how we move forward as a society and value and honor people,” Shaw said.

She estimates that more than 600 people have died since 2017 while experiencing homelessness in Calgary.

“These people and their memories are with us here today, and it really is something for them,” Shaw said. “And that’s for our society.”

A call to action

According to Shaw, all aspects of the memorial were designed by people who have experienced homelessness.

It was then created by artists from Canadian artists against poverty, Fuse33 and Studio West Bronze Foundry.

The backpack sculpture, for example, was based on a real backpack donated to the project by a man who used it to survive for 10 years while homeless in Calgary, she said.

A man pays tribute on Wednesday at the recently unveiled memorial to Calgary’s homeless Wednesday. (Dave Gilson / CBC)

And the poem etched on the memorial was also written by someone who experienced homelessness.

“We hope that when people go through it, it’s also a kind of emotional and spiritual journey when you go through the physical space,” Shaw said.

“This place is not only for gathering and reflecting, but I also see it as a call to action … and hopefully moving towards a time when this is a historical memorial.”

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