Homeless Memorials

And if I tried/to give you something else/something outside myself
you would not know/that the worst of anyone/can be, finally/an accident of hope...
There ought to be something special/for someone/in this kind of hope.
This is something I would never find/in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear/like an invisible veil between us all...
and sometimes in private/my kitchen, your kitchen/my face, your face.

-from "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," by Anne Sexton

Standing in silent meditation at WHEEL's first Women in Black vigil, I had a strong clear vision of Debbie Cashio, whom I did not know, in a sunlit kitchen, in a farmhouse, happy. Long after the vigil I learned Debbie had grown up and had a happy childhood in a small town on Whidbey Island. Her family had often tried to find her here in Seattle and take her back home to that happiness; unsuccessfully, as it so often happens.

Debbie's body was found in May 2000 near the freeway at 8th Avenue and Jackson Street. A suspected homicide, the case is still unsolved. Debbie had been homeless, and had been known to use drugs.

Death is not the great leveler, I wrote in a 1998 article, about women found dead in Seattle's Jungle - a greenbelt near the freeway on Beacon Hill where homeless people often camp. Many of what is now a long litany of missing and murdered women worked in the sex trade, and many did that work in order to support drug addictions. Single deaths, and sometimes even multiple deaths of women in this circumstance, are relegated to small newsbriefs buried in the local section of daily papers.

Every time a small newsbrief runs in the local papers about missing, dead, injured, or beaten homeless people, it talks of "transients," of "histories of prostitution or drug use." Every time, this reductive description hurts homeless people and their family members.

For example, an otherwise good, long article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer about the three 1998 victims of Seattle serial killer DeWayne Lee Harris used what appeared to be mug shots with its front-page article, and the painful subhead: "Crack addiction led three women down tragic path."

This is why news of the arrest of a suspect, finally, in the Green River killings spread so quickly on the homeless women's grapevine. Within minutes of the reported arrest of suspect Gary Leon Ridgway, three women came to the WHEEL office, where I work, to relay the news. By Monday, women reported that investigators found bodies in Gary Ridgway's backyard. This proved not to be true, but it is often the case that homeless women know more than is ever published in the papers about the missing and the dead.

Buried in the massive coverage of the Ridgway arrest are file photographs of the women victims. Mercifully, they have not always been mug shots; more often they've been family photos of smiling women accompanied by respectful stories about the longstanding pain of those who loved and miss their daughters and sisters.

Buried also are photographs of groups of women - family, friends, and supporters of the missing and murdered - who mobilized in the mid-'80s to press for closure in the case.

Missing women

December 21, the longest night, the Winter Solstice, is "National Memorial Day for Homeless People," declared by the National Coalition for the Homeless. More than 100 cities nationwide plan memorial services in the last week of December each year for homeless people who have died. In Seattle the Compass Center has its annual memorial service at 4 p.m. Friday, January 4, at their 77 S. Washington building.

Often, the point of these memorials and vigils is this: It could have been one of our own. It was one of our own, or dozens of our own women murdered or disappeared from Pacific Highway South in 1982-84, 45 women currently missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., and dozens more unsolved cases throughout the Pacific Northwest. Homeless women over the past two decades have gone missing or been murdered in numbers beyond our wildest imaginings, if only we paid attention.

During research for a 1998 Real Change article that broke the news of a serial killer preying on homeless women in Seattle and leaving their bodies in a mile-wide stretch in or near the Jungle, I spoke to many women who knew the victims:
"We're easy to find. Easy prey. I don't get in nobody's car. I wonder who else is gonna be next; I hope it won't be me," said Karen, whom I still see in the shelters. She was friends with Crystal, whose body was found in early 1998 at Lavizzo Park, at 22nd and Fir. (Crystal's murder was not linked to that of the three attributed to serial killer DeWayne Lee Harris. To my knowledge, her murder has never been solved.)

It's hard to remember the presumption of innocence when you desperately want the killings, the disappearances to stop. If Gary Ridgway is the Green River Killer, and if in fact he did not stop killing in late 1984 but rather changed his venue, the number of victims could be beyond our most horrifying imaginings.

The list of dead and missing women up and down the Pacific coast, just from the past two decades, is unbelievable:

  • 49 murders are now attributed to the Green River Killer, including 4 women who disappeared from Seattle whose bodies were found in and around Portland, from July 1982 through March 1984.
  • 45 women are missing in Vancouver. Disappearances date back to 1984 but accelerated in the 1990s. Women have gone missing as recently as August 2001.
  • 3 women were found dead, strangled, in 1995. Their bodies were found near Agassiz, B.C., which is about 50 miles north of Vancouver.
  • 5 women were found dead, and 1 disappeared from Victoria, from 1986-2001.
  • 3 women were found dead, strangled, in Forest Park in Portland, 1999.
  • 40 women were found dead in San Diego, from 1985 to 1991. Gary Ridgway's son was stationed in San Diego during those years.

In addition, anywhere from 38 to 80 more unsolved cases of "female homicides," predominantly women in the sex trade in Washington state, have been reopened since Ridgway's arrest. Murders of homeless women in the sex trade often go unsolved; a survey of murders of Vancouver sex trade workers over the past two decades shows that fewer than half of the 80 murders have been solved.

Whether the many open cases can be linked is questionable. Sergeant Don Adam of the B.C. Missing Women Task Force says, "There are so many guys capable of this it's mind-boggling. It's not like we're lacking suspects." This raises the equally horrifying prospect that there are multiple killers preying on vulnerable women.

A bungled case

The day after Ridgway was arrested, I asked Wayne Leng, a friend of one of the missing women in Vancouver, how folks up there were reacting, whether the RCMP and Missing Women Task Force were talking already of investigating a link. "We are all shocked to hear about Ridgway," he said. "But we are also hoping that finally we will have answers to what has happened to our loved ones. It seems a likely case, since the Green River killings stopped in 1984, and the Vancouver disappearances started the same year. None of us knew until a few days ago that the disappearances in Vancouver started way back in 1984."

The Vancouver missing women case is an object lesson in how crimes against poor people are treated. It has been called "an international embarrassment" by Raven Bowen of Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE). "This is how our weakest citizens are treated." A Joint Task Force (of the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP) was not even established to investigate the missing women until April of this year; a list of missing women was not publicized until 1999, and family members and friends report not even getting return phone calls from investigators.

This autumn, PACE released a scathing report, prepared by current and former sex trade workers. This September, The Vancouver Sun ran a seven-article series on egregious errors on the part of the Vancouver Police Department. Details include:

  • Too few officers were assigned to the investigation, and most were assigned only part-time. The Vancouver Police Department is desperately short-staffed.
  • The Police Department is rife with infighting; investigators withheld information from the rest of the team.
  • Investigators were largely untrained, especially in managing such an enormous and complex case.
  • Data-entry problems with the computer system used to track the investigation caused the system to crash; investigators believe they retrieved all the data but are not sure.

It is hard not to make assumptions about why this case has been treated so carelessly. The 10-block stretch of Hastings Street, where the 45 women have disappeared, is known as the Lower Track. It is a surreal terrain: Canada's poorest postal code, an area with the highest intravenous drug use in the world, and an area where 80 percent of drug users engage in prostitution to support their drug addictions. But, as a minister who works the Lower Track says, "Prostitution shouldn't be a death sentence."

In light of the unsuccessful investigation, tenacious friends and family of the missing women, social service providers, and advocates have carried the twofold torch of memory and demand for justice. Friends and family of the missing women in Vancouver developed and maintain an amazingly comprehensive website: www. missingpeople.net.

At press time, Vancouver Task Force members are already backpedaling and dismissing potential links to the Ridgway case, despite reports from Ridgway's neighbors and coworkers that he traveled regularly to B.C. and Portland by car and motor home, and despite B.C. prostitutes identifying his photograph. Constable David Dickson, who circulates a "Bad Date" list to sex workers in the Lower Track, says dismissively, "I'm sure some of them think they saw the guy, but I don't put much stock in that."

Do you see what I see?

At this year's December 5 Homeless Women's Forum: Memorials, Joey Glass, one of the Forum speakers, spoke of her childhood, growing up in "your typical middle-class dysfunctional family." She then said, "I stand before you today as a formerly homeless woman. A woman in recovery. A former sex-industry worker."

As painful as that revelation was, it was a healing form of courage. Joey went on to describe her journey, given hope at the hands of a social service provider who "saw something in me I didn't even see myself."

Seven speakers shared their own stories and memories or thoughts on women (and men) we've lost from the homeless community. Each of them pleaded with the 200 attendees to remember those lost could be any one of us: your mother, sister, son, self.

For friends, family, and the homeless community itself, the longest night has three faces: The crime against their loved ones. Reductive media coverage. And then, often, lack of investigative energy poured into solving the crime. Lack of knowledge for closure is often the most difficult part.

On an hour-long KOMO news special, broadcast the day of Ridgway's arrest, the brother of one of the Green River victims spoke of his desire for justice. He started to cry. For him, justice would not be the death penalty, but rather a deal, any deal, to get information for closure for the hundreds of friends and family members for the missing and dead. (King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng has vowed that he will not offer a deal to Ridgway for a guilty plea or for information about other cases.)

My face, your face

Down at the Pioneer Square Clinic, there is a nurse named Mary Larson, who in her spare time paints portraits of her low-income and homeless patients. They light up the clinic with their warmth. A display of these portraits, at the University Village Starbucks, lists the portraits for sale for such things as "400 pairs of socks. 500 McDonald's certificates." Community response to this, according to staff at the clinic, has been amazing. A woman from Enumclaw is knitting hats for Seattle's homeless people because of Mary's portraits.

What do we see? Why do we mobilize? Do we mobilize from mug shots, or from portraits, like Mary Larson's, where poor people are glowing, golden, burnished, at their best?

Here in Seattle, the homeless women of WHEEL and the Church of Mary Magdalene mobilize their silent witnessing vigil, Women in Black, every time a homeless person is found dead outside, often the victim of murder. Many are still-unsolved cases. Often, we mobilize for women and men we did not even know.

None of these cases would have received the attention they did without mobilization. And the vigils and memorials all are driven by our knowledge, borne of visions and helpful empathy, that it is my face, your face.

— by Michele Marchand

For more information on the web: www.missingpeople.net (for the Vancouver Missing Women story) and www.marylarsonart.com.