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On the day leading up to the longest night of the year, community members gathered on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn to remember the members of Billings' homeless community who passed away during 2015 and to raise awareness for those still living on the city's streets.

The Monday ceremony drew more than 50 people and included a candlelight vigil and prayer. It was the 22nd annual national Homeless Persons' Memorial Day and was organized locally by RiverStone Health.

"It gives us great streets, Lord," said Pastor Glenn Fournier, of the Montana Rescue Mission, during an opening prayer. "It bothers us that anyone would have to die alone on the streets."

The Montana Homeless Survey counted 1,247 homeless people statewide on a single night in January, including 167 in District 7, which includes Yellowstone, Carbon, Big Horn, Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties.

Across Montana, half of those counted said they were sleeping outside while more than half in District 7 reported the same, along with more than one-third saying they had mental health or substance abuse problems.

While the crowd — including a large group of about 20 from The Hub drop-in center, which serves Billings' homeless — held small white candles, local officials talked about the need to help the city's homeless population.

John Felton, RiverStone's president and CEO, said it's important to remember the homeless are entitled to the same dignity, concern and respect as anyone else and that citizens should want to help when they can.

He went on to say that the deaths from the last year need to serve as a reminder to others that homelessness needs to addressed.

"We owe it to them to ensure that their deaths ... are not in vain," Felton said.

Attendees brought donations of cold-weather gear — hats and gloves, socks, coats and blankets — for homeless people, some of whom were at the vigil and received items on the spot.

Clarence Salley, with Riverstone's Healthcare for the Homeless, encouraged people to help, including by volunteering with any number of Billings groups that help the homeless, including the Montana Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, YWCA and the Community Crisis Center.

"Just show kindness — acts of kindness, words of kindness — often," he said.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy read a proclamation by the commission declaring Monday a day to remember the homeless and December as Homeless Awareness Month in the county.

At the end of the  20-minute ceremony, the crowd sang a rendition of "The First Noel."

Felton described the need to help Billings' homeless not as a social contract, but a social covenant, which he described as "a sacred trust entered by choice," and reinforced that every homeless person is worthy of help.

"Why a person is experiencing homelessness should not enter into the decision to help them," he said.

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