Memorial held in Sherman Heights for 20 hep A victims

Their names were never released to the public, but the 20 people who died during San Diego’s hepatitis A outbreak were remembered Wednesday night in a moving candlelight service in Sherman Heights.

“It boils down to how a community treats its lowest members,” memorial organizer Jack Fitzgerald said about the victims of the outbreak, which hit downtown’s homeless population the hardest. “We’re praying to show them dignity and acknowledging their full personhood and humanity.”

About 30 people attended the 6:30 p.m. memorial on Commercial Street below the Interstate 5 bridge, where many homeless people regularly congregate.

Most at the memorial had come from Our Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where Fitzgerald works as social outreach coordinator.

Fitzgerald said it was symbolic that officials had never released the names of the 20 people who died in the outbreak, because it showed how they were treated without dignity.

In place of names, people at the memorial read what little they knew about each victim, then prayed for them.

“The first victim was a 58-year-old man who died on February 25 (2017),” one person said, reading from a script.

“We remember you tonight,” the group said in unison.

The readings continued until each person was recognized.

Hepatitis A is spread through fecal matter, and many who were infected were homeless people without access to toilets or places to properly wash their hands.

Besides the 20 who died, 588 people were infected during the outbreak, which was first detected in March 2017 but was traced back to late 2016.

Although the county installed portable toilets and hand-washing stations to curb the epidemic’s spread, a report released by the county Board of Supervisors last month faulted local governments’ response.

Many people at the memorial also faulted the city and county for not responding fast enough. Father John Auther of Our Lady of Guadalupe said it’s obvious from the smell of urine on the street that the area still is neglected.

“I’d like to challenge the mayor and City Council to come here and pray and take a deep breath,” he said.

Yusef Miller, the community outreach liaison for the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also noted the smell.

“What we smell here is injustice,” he said. “What we see here is injustice. The end to injustice begins with us.”

Sherman Heights resident David Gonzalez said he hoped the lives lost in the epidemic would be a catalyst for change.

“If we can put in a little time, it’ll help our city leaders to make a change so they won’t wait until 20 people have died and they’re embarrassed so they do something,” he said.

The church organized the community group Fair Share San Diego in response to the city’s opening of the Storage Connect Center, which will provide storage bins for 500 homeless people to store their belongings.

Members of the group have said they oppose the center because of its location next to the church’s Our Lady’s School and because it would continue to concentrate homeless people in their neighborhood.

The memorial was timed to be held on the same day as the opening of the city’s new Storage Connect Center, about a block away from the ceremony.

The center was a breaking point for some Sherman Heights and nearby Logan Heights residents, who argued that their neighborhoods already had taken on many services for homeless people, and it was time for other communities to do their fair share.

While city officials have said the new center will benefit homeless people because it will give them a place to safely store their property, Auther and Fitzgerald said it also may exasperate health problems in the neighborhood by making the homeless population more concentrated.

The memorial service included readings from the Good Samaritan parable and a relevant quote from St. Pope John Paul: “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.”

gary.warth@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @GaryWarthUT

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