Kevin Baugh wiped a tear from his eye while standing outside the D Street Shelter and remembering a friend he lost this year.
“He was always positive. He always had a smile on his face,” the 52-year-old said.
Baugh was talking about Jeremy Montoya, who died this year from complications related to diabetes. Baugh said he knew several of the 28 people named on the list of homeless who died and were remembered during a candle-lighting ceremony Friday at the homeless shelter.
Baugh said he knew Montoya, who was originally from Mariposa, for about three years. They were regulars at the shelter.
“(Montoya) was fighting his demons, like so many people do,” Baugh said, “but he never brought his misery to anybody.”
Merced’s homeless and formerly homeless people, as well as advocates, service providers and residents from the community, honored their friends who died in 2013. It was the second Homeless Persons Memorial Day observed in Merced.
Robert McKeever, 50, said he was at the shelter to light a candle in remembrance of Frank Villanueva, whom he had known since 2008. McKeever said his friend had been trying to get off of drugs for some time, but died when his kidneys failed this month.
“He’d been doing real good,” McKeever said. “He was a close friend; he was a shoulder to cry on.”
“Frankie,” as McKeever called him, was always making others around him laugh.
During the ceremony inside the shelter, the names of those who died were read. Anyone who wished to honor the passing of a friend lit a candle. Others read from the Bible and prayed.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has sponsored memorials since 1990, and observances take place annually in more than 150 cities and counties across the country. The memorials are typically planned on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
Not everyone was there to honor close friends, some visitors came to remember acquaintances.
Clifford Marci, who was homeless for about six years, said he came to honor a handful of people he had met who were on the list. He admitted he knew little about them, but wanted to remember them nonetheless.
“I’m here to help and pay my respects,” he said, while standing in the shelter. “This is like my extended family.”
The memorial was organized by the shelter and Golden Valley Health Centers. Food and clothing were given to anyone who asked for them after the ceremony.
Yoni Mulugeta, a homeless program assistant with Golden Valley Health, said the turnout was about the same as last year, which was the inaugural observance in Merced County. He said the center wanted the memorial to serve an underserved community as well as bring people together.
“It’s also a chance to unite different people in the community that might not (unite) in any other circumstance,” he said.
There are about 372 adults and children living on the street or at homeless shelters in Merced, according to a homeless count from earlier this year. The number, which was revised, drew some controversy over its accuracy. Another count is expected in January.
As Friday’s event wound down, Baugh noted that the memorial was a fitting send-off to those who may not have gotten one.
“It’s an important day to recognize us no matter what status we are,” Baugh said. “We’re all human beings.”