Amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown holiday shopping in Seattle, a group gathered for a somber occasion: remembering the lives of homeless people who died this year. Women in Black, Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL) and others silently walked several blocks from the Tree of Life homeless remembrance statue at Victor Steinbrueck Park to Westlake Park. Each held candles, which illuminated their faces shortly after the sun set at 4:21 p.m, ending the shortest day and beginning the longest night of the year.
“We do it because every person on the planet deserves dignity,” wheel member Allene Steinberg said. “People are found in all kinds of decomposing situations. So you never know exactly how many. It’s frightening.”
Groups held an estimated 112 events in 39 states and the District of Columbia, honoring more than 2,700 people who have died while unhoused in the United States over the past year, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). For 27 years, NCH has led grassroots observances of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day around the first day of winter, Dec. 21.
Each community participated in the event in its own way, such as through church services or protest demonstrations. Some placed emphasis on collecting data on the number of people who have passed away and why. Others groups focus on a spiritual farewell and strengthening community.
Once Seattle’s memorial reached Westlake Park, the group of more than 50 people stood in a line sandwiched between a dazzling, rotating carousel and major retail chains. As people walked by volunteers passed out fliers headlined, “WITHOUT SHELTER, PEOPLE DIE!” The flier listed the names of the dead and showed how to support organizations that help the unsheltered.
“It’s a way to jar people awake as they do their holiday shopping,” participant Laura Cooley said.
NCH didn’t invent these services, but it united and propagated them. Some cities and towns hold their annual memorial services during other times of year, because that’s what they’ve been doing since before National Homeless Persons Memorial Day existed. People have been dying homeless in America for decades.
Common refrains were heard at nearly every service: In one of the richest countries in the world, no one should have to live or die homeless; let this be the last year that such a memorial need be held; and housing is health care.
Though it disproportionately affects people of color, homelessness can happen to anyone.
“We hope that this moment is a time for us to remember the people ... Homelessness is a human issue,” said NCH Director Megan Hustings at a memorial service in the nation’s capital.
Part of NCH’s effort includes collecting data on how many people die without homes each year and presenting that information as clear and serious evidence that ending homelessness needs more attention and resources. This is essentially honoring the dead by helping the living. The numbers are self-reported and assumed underreported. At services in D.C., a community member spoke up to add several names that had not been recognized. The same happened during Boston’s 2015 memorial. NCH always lists “Jane Doe” and “John Doe” as a reminder of those who may not have been remembered that day.
“Time and time again, what’s reported is that homelessness is going down,” Hustings said in an interview. “And what we know from our communities is that that is just not the case.”
On Homeless Persons Memorial Day, songs and symbols rule the day: People brought blankets or held candles to represent every lost soul, choirs sang and communities held interfaith prayers. Placards and lists bearing names to remember were raised high in communities across the country so that no one is forgotten.
In Portland, Oregon, 88 people died on the streets in the state’s most populous county in 2015. It’s the highest number of deaths in one year since the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office began tracking homeless deaths through the Domicile Unknown report in 2011. Alcohol and drugs contributed to 44 deaths, with opiates playing a role in 22.
These numbers don’t include homeless men and women in the Portland area who died indoors, in hospitals or hotel rooms. It captures only those who died outdoors — in places such as abandoned buildings and on sidewalks.
In Washington D.C., the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) has organized its fourth overnight vigil in conjunction with the longstanding Homeless Person’s Memorial Day service at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Homeless and formerly homeless people lead the advocacy organization, but its membership spans across the housing spectrum.
By now, PFFC has a model: evening speaking engagement, a march through the streets, food and fellowship, donation distribution, sleep out, wake up and lobby city council, read the names and pray for the people, a closing procession.
Local advocates broke down the 46 names to be remembered and identified everyone who had been awarded housing assistance but who died before moving in: 16 men.
“I didn’t realize that so many people were dying after they were being matched to a voucher,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy specialist with D.C.’s Miriam’s Kitchen.
“I’d like to honor today, not just those who have been unfortunate to lose their lives, but the walking wounded in our city,” said Dr. Catherine Crosland, director of homeless outreach services for Unity Health Care, at the start of the vigil.
Every year on the third Wednesday of December, Denver dims the Christmas lights decorating the City and County Building and a small crowd gathers to remember those who have died on the streets. Many of the 125 or so people who attended the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil on Dec. 21 work for a homeless services agency in the city, though some attendees have just come to pay their respects or remember a friend.
This year Denver honored 171 homeless or formerly homeless individuals who passed away. Of those 171, 79 died on the streets in 2016. The 27th annual candlelight vigil, hosted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), included speeches and a reading of the list of decedents’ names.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was noticeably absent from the 2016 memorial vigil. Though it is customary for the mayor to deliver a speech at the ceremony, Mayor Hancock announced the morning of Dec. 21 that he would not speak at the event. The Denver mayor received much negative publicity in 2016 for the city’s multiple “sweeps” of homeless encampments.
Every December, to coincide with the memorial service, CCH publishes the Homeless Death Review, a report that details mortality statistics for people experiencing homelessness in Denver. Of the 79 individuals who died on the streets in 2016, more than 80 percent were age 60 or younger. The leading cause of death was drug or alcohol related, and 42 percent of individual deaths were due to accident.
Seattle’s Women in Black memorializes people who have died while living outside and homeless people who died violently. So far, Women in Black has remembered and memorialized 54 people who have died in 2016. By comparison, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office reported that 76 homeless people died this year. In addition to those living on the street, the medical examiner also considers people who are couch-surfing, living in shelters or motels as homeless.
“The plight of the homeless isn’t well advertised, and I think that we need to shed more light on the fact that you have human beings who are living outside in the winter time and it gets so cold and they have no shelter,” Associate Medical Examiner Micheline Lubin said. “Everybody deserves to come home to a warm home.”
The group stood in the cold for more than an hour but that time of being uncomfortable pales in comparison for those who have nowhere to go. Hypothermia, septic shock and numerous gunshot wounds are just a few of the causes of death for the homeless. The majority of the victims are White men. The average age is 49 years old.
“Now’s a good time to meditate upon the gaiety of the season while remembering those who are less fortunate who have died during this time of year without the comfort of what we all cherish: friends, family, warmth, food,” King County Medical Examiner Dr. Richard Harruff said. “We had three deaths in two days during the cold snap of people living on street in tents and so forth.”
The yearly vigil is always held on winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
Steinberg, an older woman living in transitional housing, is particularly concerned with the number of women who have passed away.
“One woman died of malnutrition and dehydration,” Steinberg said. “Can you imagine, in this city to die by not being able to get food and water?”
She’s referring to Maja Franziska Brändi, 29. She died in July in Renton.
As the group took time to pause and remember those who have died it’s a solemn reminder that shelter can be a life-or-death situation.
Cole Merkel, Sarah Harvey and Eric Falquero contributed to this report.