On Christmas night in 2017, 20-year-old Jennifer Metzger was struck by a hit-and-run driver and passed away from her injuries a few days later. Though she was homeless, she is not forgotten.
Almost a year later, Jennifer’s mother Jocelyn Metzger wiped tears from her face on Friday night, single candle in hand, as she remembered her daughter’s life. The lives of Jennifer and 15 other homeless individuals who passed away over the course of the last year were honored on the first night of winter — the longest night of the year — during a vigil at the We Care Program shelter.
This was the second year Turlock has held a vigil on Dec. 21, which is known as Homeless Persons Memorial Day, giving the loved ones of homeless lost the chance to mourn, remember and celebrate their lives.
“These folks didn’t get an opportunity to say goodbye to their friends who have passed, and this is an opportunity for their lives to be remembered,” We Care Shelter program manager Debbie Gutierrez said. “Just because they were in the street when they passed doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out here who care about them.”
Even though Jennifer was homeless, Jocelyn said, she always knew she had a place to go. Jocelyn explained that her daughter remained on the streets to help others whom she couldn’t bear to leave.
“She always had a bed and food if she wanted it, but when she met so many homeless people and realized there are lives out there, she wanted to make it better for them,” Jocelyn said. “All she wanted to do was help and give you whatever you need. I saw her take her jacket off her back to give to a woman who didn’t have one.”
Jocelyn and others joined in song, led by Reverend Jeff Woods, and viewed a slideshow comprised of the photos of homeless who have passed away this year. Candles were lit and fond memories were shared, like stories about Dwayne Giesbrecht, Turlock’s “Rock Man,” and Antonio “Pickle” Moreno, who was well-known among residents of the west side and in the downtown area.
“They touched people when they walked these streets,” Gutierrez said. “They matter, they’re human and people care about them.”
The holidays can be especially hard on the homeless population, Gutierrez added — many of whom not only lack a roof over their head, but a family to share Christmas with. For Jocelyn, the loss of her child so close to the holiday will never get easier, but Friday’s vigil helped ease some of the pain.
“I feel good for doing it, but I can’t get over the loss,” she said. “Then seeing so many other people going through the same thing…it’s like everybody usually hides from everybody, but right now is a time where you can let your hair down and be who you are.”
Of the other 15 lives honored Friday night, several were killed by trains, one was murdered and many others passed away from ailments and natural causes that were likely exacerbated by their homeless condition. The vigil was not only about honoring them, Kelvin Jasek-Rysdahl of We Care said, but also a means of increasing awareness about the homeless plight.
“Being homeless for a long time really wears the body down,” he said. “This is certainly about the people that passed this year, but it’s also about all of the people who continue to be homeless without a place to go.”