Shining the light on the homeless — one candle at a time

This coming Thursday evening around 5:30, you’ll see a small crowd assembled on the exterior steps of Burlington, Vermont’s City Hall, looking out upon Church Street. Sometimes there are 30 people and sometimes there are 50. It might be snowing, but they’ll still be there.

They’ll be holding candles and doing something poignant and powerful and very, very simple. One by one they’ll be reading the first names of some of the homeless in this area and sharing a piece of their history. Sometimes it’s about how a person wound up without a roof and sometimes it’s about how they were helped by COTS — the Committee on Temporary Shelter. I can still recall some of the names I’ve read aloud from those steps over the years.

And before we read the names, there is music: Betsy Nolan, choir director of the Edmunds Middle School, leads her 18 seventh- and eighth-graders in song. This year they will be singing “One Candle” and the canon, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Nolan has been bringing the choir to the vigil for eight years now.

“I think it’s a really great event,” Nolan told me. “With the diversity in our school, we have students who come from economic privilege and students who come from economic challenges. It’s a nice way for them to see there are all different kinds of people who need our support.”

It was COTS Executive Director Rita Markley who first approached Nolan about singing in the vigil. Before agreeing, Nolan asked her students if they wanted to participate. She wanted to be sure that they understand the significance of the moment. She has done it this way every year since. After the vigil, they all go out for pizza and discuss the evening — and what they just learned as young adults. “The kids always say it’s awesome that we have an organization like COTS. That’s so important to them,” she said.

But then there was the year when Nolan and the choir members were surprised by the sort of revelation that drives home the fragility of our lives. “I had a choir student whose family had been in one of the COTS shelters. She shared that her family had experienced homelessness and felt so privileged to be able to help,” Nolan recalled. “I didn’t know this about her until we went to the vigil. It was pretty powerful.”

Becky Holt, director of development and communications at COTS, has witnessed the effect of the vigil on people for years now. “I tell COTS stories — that’s what I do. I don’t look at my job as fundraising, but as sharing why the gifts to COTS matter. The vigil is the once a year moment where we literally tell the stories of people helped by COTS. And, for me, it’s the most solemn and important event of the year, because it’s where we reflect and honor our neighbors facing homelessness — the meaning behind the mission,” she said.

In the last year, COTS helped more than 2,000 people. Seventy-eight families — including 127 children — and another 301 individuals stayed at the shelters. An average of 40 people a day visited the Daystation. And that homeless student in the Edmunds Middle School Choir? She was far from alone. There were 172 homeless children in Chittenden County in October.

Who knows what the weather will be on Thursday night. This is Vermont and it can change in a heartbeat. It may be oddly balmy. The air might be still. And Church Street might be a snow globe, the flakes swirling and the gusts off Lake Champlain making it nearly impossible to keep our candles lit.

“It’s beautiful when it snows, but it has a huge impact: The kids are outside and they are reminded that there will be people in the city that night who are homeless,” Nolan said.

Indeed. There will be homeless in Burlington tonight. And tomorrow. And the night of the vigil. But thanks to COTS, some will have shelter. And some will even have homes.

That is the meaning of this season – and why this vigil is always worth watching.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press. Chris’s most recent novel is “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.