Homeless Memorials

"You’ll have to excuse me," said Elaine Simons of Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS) after the memorial service for Nicholas "Rooster" Helhowski. "I need to go give some kids some loving."

More than 300 people had gathered near sunset on Tuesday, April 16 to remember and mourn "Rooster," a young man who "at age 20 made more of an impact than many do in a lifetime," according to Pastor Shannon Anderson, who presided. The memorial was held at PSKS, one of the few programs that love and work with street youth on an empowerment model.

Badly beaten April 11 after exiting a bus at 85th and Wallingford, "Rooster" died four days later, after slipping into a coma. His friends were with him until the end. His friends never left him, and he was never estranged from his family. His family, like hundreds of street kids, gathered to mourn this man cut down too young.

"He spoke a universal language — look at all the different kinds of people here!" exclaimed a Seattle Police Officer. Businesspeople, politicians, bureaucrats, social service providers, and hundreds of street youth, a mosaic of multicolored mohawks on kids otherwise all dressed in black; so many people that the Police Department closed Olive Way for the memorial service.

"The Perfect public servant"

"Rooster" had followed a different trajectory than many street kids, and his transformation was an inspiration to many of his peers gathered to mourn his passing.

He was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, and grew up in the small town of Hebron, Indiana. He graduated from high school, and then came to Seattle to "explore life," as it said in the memorial program. Nicknamed Rooster because of his red mohawk, he lived on the streets for a while, but at 18, he traded in the ’hawk for a short, slicked-back do and pinstripe suit. He had a dream, and did everything in his power to follow it.

Looking very grave, Mayor Greg Nickels said, "The City is very sad," and explained he’d met Rooster a few weeks earlier at a meeting of the Music and Youth Commission on Broadway. "He made a difference," Nickels said. "He was the perfect public servant: He knew his constituents, he loved them, he stood up for them, and he never forgot them."

He was the co-founder of the Donut Dialogue, an informal dialogue among Broadway denizens — business leaders, street kids, other neighborhood folks — designed to strengthen the sense of community and real safety on Capitol Hill.

"He made friends with a cop," said Simons. "Figure that one out."

He was an AmeriCorps volunteer placed at PSKS; he also read to the elderly. Recently he had sought a mentor, and was trying to learn the techniques of running a small business from Barry Rogel who owns The Deluxe Bar and Grill on north Broadway. "I’ll miss not having a chance to influence a very important person," Rogel said.

Rooster lived at Harder House transitional program, and was an inspiration, a human alarm clock to his friends who also lived there. He was "a ringleader for change and upward advancement for street youth," said a representative from the Park Hill Rotary, who broke down after she spoke of what a charismatic young man he was.


Cathy Helhowski, Rooster’s mom, started by saying to the kids, "You are our family, and you always will be our family." His sister Laura said, "Keep him alive in your hearts and never forget him." His father, Jim, said, "Your life doesn’t belong just to you, it belongs to everyone who ever cared about you."

"I thought I’d put on my game face," said Officer Kim Bogucki of SPD as she started to cry. Having been befriended by Rooster early in her assignment to the Broadway beat, she and Rooster had gotten close, had celebrated Christmas together. Officer Bogucki explained how one day she ended up taking him to get his drivers license — he in his huge red ’hawk, she in uniform. "Everyone looked really nervous, since they figured he ought to be in ’cuffs and he wasn’t." One woman at the DMV asked, "Is he your son?"

"I am so glad I took my job personally with Nick," she said, as she broke down in tears again. And with a dozen others: she stood before us and went through a litany of names, pointing to other kids gathered in the street. "Thank you so much for sharing your family with me."


"Nick would call bullshit on me if I didn’t say we have to do something about this," said Jordan Royer, head of the city’s Neighborhood Action Team. He was referring to the brutal violence that ended Rooster’s life so abruptly. Nearly everyone who spoke at the memorial implored the crowd to allow the system to go through its slow process for justice. (It is now two weeks after Nick’s beating death, and there are still no suspects in custody.)

Mayor Nickels asked the crowd to commit to stopping senseless acts of violence, and to bringing the murderers of Nicholas Helhowski to justice. As part of that vision, he declared April 16 Anti-Violence Awareness Day.

But what does that mean over the long haul? What does it mean to the kids mourning the loss of their friend?

Barry Rogel of the Deluxe said: "Stay involved, and work for meaningful change."

"We have to make this neighborhood a better place!" said Royer.

Nicholas and Marina
Nicholas and Marina

"Nick knew you could do everything with words and not fighting," said Marina, his fiancée, who implored her peers not to use violence to respond to an act of violence.

Tony Do of PSKS seemed unable to commit to these peaceful paths. He tried twice to get up to speak for his friend. Finally, he sat on the steps and poured out his questions, his own sense of grief and anger at his friend’s death. At the end of his heartbreakingly intense soul-baring he shouted, "Oy!"

"Oy!" came the answering cry, from hundreds of youth in the streets, whatever "Oy" means.

Seeds of hope

PSKS reached out to WHEEL and Church of Mary Magdalene to do a Women in Black vigil simultaneous to this PSKS vigil. We could not find each other in a crowd of hundreds dressed in black. "It’s impossible to do Women in Black on Broadway," said Reverand Pat Simpson of Church of Mary Magdalene. "But I’m glad I was there."

It was impossible because black is, obviously, the cool color to wear. And it’s also impossible because there is so much grief, so much loss, so many young people lost to us. This was the third PSKS memorial in the last few months; previously PSKS kids gathered to mourn the loss of their friends "Jello" and "Filthy." They have begun a haphazard memorial garden in the small patch of earth adjacent to their building.

In closing, Rachel, a young woman who was obviously strung out, said, "Nick’d ask me, ‘Rachel, what’re you doing, the drugs are ruining you!’ The streets, they suck you in until they eat you alive!" Ann Donovan of the Capitol Hill Community Council said, "Nick shone a light on PSKS," but spoke of her own perception that these kids are a throwaway generation.

Even so, "These are the seeds of hope Rooster planted: If he could succeed, we all can," said a woman called Mama Sarah. "If an old hippie and a young punker can share dreams, we all can."

It’s a start.

— memorial by Michele Marchand

WHEEL and the Church of Mary Magadalene did a cleansing ritual and vigil at the 85th and Wallingford #16 bus stop, the place Rooster was beaten, on the one-month anniversary of his death, May 14.

Women in Black for Rooster