HomeCity NewsAscencia Remembers Lives Lost to Homelessness

Ascencia Remembers Lives Lost to Homelessness

Manu Tanuvasa took his time warming up to people, but when he opened himself up, his way of relating to them would touch their hearts. This endearing attribute will be kept fondly in the memories of those who knew him.
Tanuvasa, who was proud to be from the island of Samoa, was one of the 17 individuals who died in 2022 as Ascencia worked to assist them transition out of homelessness.
Tania Rogel, who helped her colleagues eulogize each of Ascencia’s clients they knew firsthand, said Tanuvasa’s last words to his case manager were: “I am going to work hard on my addiction recovery to make you happy.” This heartfelt exchange speaks to the level of affection held by those being served by the organization’s staff.
In honor of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, Ascencia — the nonprofit that is involved in homeless outreach and response in Glendale and surrounding cities — held its annual memorial service at the local Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Arranged a few days before Christmas, the memorial is intended to give a proper funeral to those who too often die on the streets or in shelters without family, friends or recognition.
Since 2007, Ascencia has organized these services to afford individuals dignity at the end of their life’s journey.

(Photos courtesy Emily Jackowitz) – Glendale Mayor Ardy Kassakhian (third, from left) holds a candle alongside members of the Glendale Fire Department during Ascencia’s memorial service.

Along with Tanuvusa, a candle was lit in remembrance of Thaddeus Mason, Isaac Ayala, Denise Lerma, Florence Grady Johnson, Michael Turner, Jesse Garza, Jose Vargas, Jasmine Ford, Melissa Lamsus, Annette Jackson, Marcus Paglialonga, Michael Berry, Harmik Soghomonian, Vincent Rojas, Michael Arrigo and Kenneth Lasch.
Ascencia Executive Director Laura Duncan said she envisions a future when the world would no longer need to observe such an occasion.
“I really wish Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day wasn’t necessary anymore and that one day we won’t need it,” Duncan said. “When you really sit and think about the reality of the situation, it’s very disturbing and hard — it’s something you never get used to.”
Though some people who live on the streets eventually get housed, that isn’t always enough to save their lives; unfortunately, this is a result of the immense physical and mental toll of homelessness. Duncan said it is common for many of these individuals to die prematurely, with the average age of death being 63.
“Unhoused people are at greater risk of infectious and chronic illness due to poor health habits and poor health,” she said. “Their mental health suffers as well and some turn to substance use in order to cope. Often, they are victims of ongoing violence that caused them to flee their homes in the first place, and their mortality rate is up to nine times higher than for rest of us.”
According to the Department of Public Health’s annual reporting, the number of unhoused people who died in L.A. County in 2021-22 was about 2,000, with an average of five people dying every day.

Seventeen candles were lit at Ascencia’s memorial service, each one representing an unhoused person who died in 2022: Manu Tanuvusa, Thaddeus Mason, Isaac Ayala, Denise Lerma, Florence Grady Johnson, Michael Turner, Jesse Garza, Jose Vargas, Jasmine Ford, Melissa Lamsus, Annette Jackson, Marcus Paglialonga, Michael Berry, Harmik Soghomonian, Vincent Rojas, Michael Arrigo and Kenneth Lasch.

Civic leaders who attended the memorial service included state Sen. Anthony Portantino of the 25th District, Field Deputy Jason Maruca of L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office, Senior Homelessness Deputy Sarah Tanberg of Assemblywoman Nithya Raman’s office, Battalion Chief Phil Ambrose of the Glendale Fire Department and Glendale Mayor Ardy Kassakhian.
As Kassakhian addressed those seated for the service, he said the community is faced with a moral test to help organizations such as Ascencia. He also charged individuals, whether they have a title or not, to aid those in the “shadows,” because they are the hardest ones to see.
Paraphrasing a quote by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in his eulogy, Kassakhian said: “The true measure of a government is how they treat those in the dawn of life, referring to our children, and those in the twilight of life, referring to our elderly and, most importantly, to those living in the shadows of life — the less fortunate, the disabled, the sick.
“We have an obligation to use our resources to provide to those who reside in life’s shadows by not only helping them but using what we have been blessed with to help draw attention to their needs,” he added.
Duncan expressed optimism about the community’s donations, volunteerism, advocacy and votes to help solve the ongoing crisis, along with L.A. Mayor Karen Bass’ recent move to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, with the activation of the city’s Emergency Operations Center.
“The current homeless crisis may seem unfixable but there is actually quite a lot that has been, is being and will be accomplished,” Duncan said. “Together we will solve the homelessness crisis by changing the policies to make affordable housing available to everyone.”
Ascencia is seeking in-kind donations, including blankets, gloves, beanies, rain ponchos and scarves from the public. For more information, visit ascenciaca.org/donate.

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