I am at war with the Las Vegas City Council. I am so upset with the passage of the second recent law designed to fine and incarcerate the homeless that I find myself unable to write about it right now.
I need to calm down to prevent my blog from turning into a manifesto. In an effort to find peace, I am saying the Prayer of St. Francis a lot, I am rereading Walden, which may or may not be wise and I have participated in a lot of protests over the war on the poor. I include my family whenever I can.
On January 20th, I am participating in a protest on Fremont Street that may end up with me spending the night in jail. As you can imagine, I have mixed feelings about this and I came very close to chickening out. That’s when I realized that January 20th, sounded awfully familiar and I started scrolling through Facebook. This year, January 20th is Martin Luther King Jr. Day which is significant for obvious reasons but it is also the same date, three years ago that I heard the name Daniel Aldape for the first time.
Whenever I feel frustrated with my efforts on G Street or when my faith in humanity dwindles, I remember Daniel Aldape and how he changed my life. It comes as no surprise to me that the memory of Daniel Aldape is what will give me the courage I need now.
There once was a forty-six year old man that came to Las Vegas. He was from the Chicagoland area and had grown weary of the freezing winters. He was a White Sox fan. He loved heavy metal. He hated having his picture taken. He was a notorious flirt. His father, his step-mom and his sisters loved him deeply. He was saving money to go home for his sister’s wedding. Those are the important things to know about Daniel Aldape.
He was also homeless. Due to a combination of mental health issues and alcoholism, he had been without a home for large stretches of his adult life. This is what is often referred to as chronic homelessness. Those are not his defining qualities.
His family never gave up on him. They gave him a cell phone, brought him to their homes for holidays, brought him food, made sure that he had warm clothing and they kept tabs on him, the best that they could. They didn’t want him to live that way but they couldn’t stop him either. No matter how much you love someone, they have to accept the help that you offer.
There was more potential for work in Las Vegas. There were no freezing winters and he wanted a fresh start. Two months later he was found violently murdered in downtown Las Vegas.
I didn’t know Daniel Aldape. That is the first question people ask when they learn of my involvement with his case. When I read the single paragraph in the newspaper on the afternoon of January 4th, 2017, he hadn’t yet been identified.
Homeless Man Beaten to Death in Downtown Las Vegas
I read the blurb which just reiterated the headline. It didn’t have his name or anything about the victim so I wondered if I knew him. I contacted a few other long-time volunteers that I know and asked them if they knew who he was. A few other people reached out to me to ask if I know who he was. On Monday night we asked everyone in line and no one was sure of the man’s identity. If he was sleeping on the street, in downtown Las Vegas for long, someone in that line would have noticed his sudden absence.
A week passed and the police hadn’t named the man. I called a friend at the police department and they told me that they hadn’t been able to track down his family so they were holding off a little while longer. I was concerned and I was curious who this man might be. I felt shame and guilt that this man had been murdered while he slept in my town. Just a small, unreasonable but unrelenting ping that “we” should have kept him safe. Every human should have the right to sleep without fear of harm.
What if they couldn’t find his family? What happened to the homeless when they died? What if he didn’t have a family? If none of the volunteers that I knew were aware of him, maybe no one was.
Deep in my heart there was something else eating away at me. The second anniversary of my brother’s death was quickly approaching. My heart was still aching but more than that I was still angry. I was angry at my brother for living a life that lead to his untimely death. I was angry at myself for not being vigilant or compassionate or firm enough with him. I was angry at myself for falling apart when he died. I was angry at him for not being there for me while I fell apart. I was angry that he’d broken my mother’s heart, my heart, the heart of everyone who knew him. I was angry for a lot of reasons and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t yet want to let go of that anger. At the time, it felt like letting go of my anger would be letting go of my brother. It felt like once the rage was gone, all I would have left of him was his glaring absence.
I wasn’t ready to forgive my brother yet but the more I thought about the death of this stranger, the more I felt a parallel between the two men. Both men had suffered from alcoholism and both had died way too young in an unfamiliar city. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would have felt if no one had been able to contact my family. What if it was Jimmy, alone and unclaimed?
One of the few things that brought me solace in the weeks after my brother’s death was his wake. All the people that loved Jim gathered and we said a Rosary. For the first time since his death I felt like I was doing something helpful. Surely God would hear our desperate prayers for the repose of his soul and welcome him.
Who would pray for this stranger? Who would pray for his soul? Was there anyone to mourn him? Was there a family somewhere missing him? Was there a family somewhere suffering?
I didn’t know how to find this man’s family or how to lessen their suffering. I didn’t know his religious customs or if he even had any so I fell back on my own experiences.
I could host a candlelight vigil, down on G Street before our regular Monday night serving. If all I could do was have this man lifted up in a chorus of prayer, it was something, at least.
I contacted two of my go-to people, Shawna Gonzalez and John Davis and we worked out the details. I ordered candles and flowers. We passed out flyers and Father McShane agreed to preside. On January 20th the police finally released his name so on January 21st we held the memorial.
I’m not sure how the media found out about it but I’m glad they did.
While I was trying to figure out how to give a stranger a dignified farewell, a family in Chicago was desperately trying to find their loved one. They were calling hospitals and jails. They were panicked and they definitely were suffering.
They had given him a phone but it came up missing. He always found a way to call home and check in. It had been nearly a month since they had heard from him and they knew something was terribly wrong.
The morning of January 22nd, out of pure desperation, Danny’s sister called the morgue. That is how they learned of their brother’s death. They had to break the news to their father and mother.
That same morning, after they had learned that their brother was gone, and that his murder was unsolved, they searched for information on the internet. Among the blurbs from the Review-Journal and the mugshot of their brother, they saw a video of me, telling them that we would mourn for Danny because he deserved to be mourned. They immediately found me on Facebook.
Danny’s father came to get him just a few days later. They kept me updated about Danny’s trip back to Chicago and when I announced it the following Monday night, there wasn’t a dry eye on G Street. Danny was going home, he would have a real funeral and his family would be able to mourn him properly. He wasn’t going into one of the unmarked graves scattered around the city. In such a terrible situation, this was the best case scenario.
The truth is that Danny’s memorial wasn’t just for him. It was proof to the scared Las Vegans sleeping on the street that we saw them. It was a promise to them that we see them as people who deserved to live and die with dignity and respect. It was a promise that we would strive to make their lives and even their deaths more dignified.
On February 3rd, David Dunn was murdered, with the same kind of weapon, just a block away from where Danny was killed. He was also homeless and was also sleeping when he was attacked. Unlike Danny, he had been in Las Vegas longer and was quickly identified.
At this point, our vagrant friends were starting to panic. The cops had recently raided an encampment, so people were afraid to sleep in groups and afraid to sleep alone, for fear of being singled out the way that Danny Aldape and David Dunn were. City hall was ruthlessly trying to pass “urban camping” laws to keep the homeless away from the prettier parts of downtown. The shelters were already filled to capacity. There was no safe place to sleep.
On February 22nd, the monster responsible for the deaths of both men was caught beating a mannequin with a hammer. The police had staged what looked like a potential victim, near the same intersection, wrapped up tight in blankets and for fifteen minutes, the monster lurked there before he pulled out a hammer and tried to end a third life. He was caught, arrested, released in an effort to follow him to more evidence and rearrested. They couldn’t find any evidence linking him to the deaths in his apartment.
He plead guilty to attempted murder and on August 22nd, he was sentenced to eight to twenty years in prison. I attended the sentencing with his family. While the monster won’t technically serve any time for the deaths of Danny Aldape or David Dunn, he will spend the next twenty years in prison and people sleeping on the streets have one less danger to face.
That night, on G Street we had a special Thursday dinner in honor of Danny. His family had printed Homeless Lives Matter t-shirts and had sold them to raise money. They used the funds they raised to buy socks, underwear, hygiene items and food for the homeless in Las Vegas. Now, when someone searches his name, pictures of the event they sponsored come up.
I didn’t know Danny Aldape and because of the thoughtless actions of one man, I will never get the chance. Now I know his family. I know his legacy. I promised his father the first time we spoke that Danny would not be remembered as a victim. He will be remembered as a martyr.
I think of Danny often. Whenever I face an obstacle to advocating for the homeless, I remember Danny. When I don’t want to go to G Street because it’s hot or cold or I’m tired, I remember Danny. When something trivial makes me feel like I don’t owe the world a thing, I force myself to think of Danny. On any given Monday night, I could be the last example of kindness that someone sees. We have lost many brothers and sisters to the violence and oppression of homelessness but to me Danny is always the one I’ll remember.
He was loved and watching his sisters speak of their brother with such kindness, with so many fond memories has helped me to overcome the anger that I felt toward my own brother. Without meaning to, they have helped me heal. Danny has helped me heal.