The sun set over Puget Sound Dec. 21, casting pink light behind the Tree of Life sculpture in Victor Steinbrueck Park. The two monumental branches bending under perpetual wind held Christmas baubles, and the sculpture’s blue glass base flickered with the light of dozens of electric candles.
People are respectful of the candles, said Pat Simpson, pastor at the University Temple United Methodist Church. They don’t remove the decorations when no one is looking.
That night, more than 20 people stood in a circle around the statue in somber memorial. They, like people across the nation on the longest night of the year, were there to stand in remembrance of people who died without a home in the richest nation in the world.
“Here we are, friends, gathered once more as the sun sets on the shortest day of the northern hemisphere year,” Simpson said. “Deep within us, we know the light always comes back.”
The gathering has been held for the past 15 years by the Women in Black, a project of the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL) that holds vigils throughout the year for people experiencing homelessness who died outside or by violence. It’s done in partnership with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. Dr. Richard Harruff, the chief medical examiner, helped read the names of the dead.
After each of the 109 names was spoken, the circle chanted, “We remember you.” When a name was not available, the term “unidentified” took its place.
According to the Medical Examiner’s Office, 150 people presumed homeless had died in King County by the end of November. The Examiner’s numbers tend to be slightly higher than those of Women in Black, who use different criteria for their vigils, which take place most weeks in front of the Seattle Municipal Court across the street from City Hall.
Even the Medical Examiner’s numbers may not capture the whole picture, however. The office lists the names of people presumed homeless, meaning they didn’t have a last known address, but only does so for the people whose deaths it investigates. It is difficult to quantify and measure many things about people who live their lives largely off the grid or away from systems dominated by the housed; it is also difficult to track their demise.
The Medical Examiner’s Office tracked the deaths of 194 people presumed homeless in 2018 — 25 more than in 2017. So far in 2019, the numbers seem to have dipped, although there is little variation from year to year, according to a report from the office.
The same is true about the age at which people experiencing homelessness die: It is a shockingly consistent average of about 50 years and has been for the better part of a decade, according to studies done in different cities across the nation. That’s roughly the same life expectancy as a resident of the United States in 1910.
Today, life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years, according to the World Bank. Homelessness ordinarily steals almost three decades of a person’s life.
In 2018, the last year for which data has been tabulated, the largest number of deaths were deemed “natural,” resulting from the wear and tear on the body that living outdoors magnifies. Nearly a third of the people who died that year died from a drug overdose.
Other listed causes of death include suicide and homicide, but many deaths are accidental — killed by cars or hypothermia.
Seattle and King County officials declared a state of emergency around the homelessness crisis in November 2015. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been funneled into the homelessness response to open new shelters and enhance the ones that exist, to build affordable housing and to build a better safety net to prevent vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place.
According to data from All Home King County, the organizing entity behind the homelessness response, these new investments seem to be working as the number of people becoming homeless dipped below the number of people exiting homelessness. The measures are rough; those people could be leaving Seattle and King County rather than getting housed, or simply are not popping up in the Homeless Management Information System.
Seattle and King County are in the process of building a new entity to oversee and coordinate the homelessness response called the Regional Homelessness Authority that will streamline the response between the two governments. It will also involve people who have been homeless directly.
That’s a good thing in the eyes of Christopher Anderson, a SHARE participant who stood in remembrance that dark Saturday night.
The group had marched in procession through Pike Place Market with candles in their hands, a stark contrast to the holiday merriment around them, up Pike Street and to Westlake Park, where they stood next to a barrier holding joyous families waiting to get on the carousel.
“We need a functioning government that pays attention to the voices and perspectives of homeless people and their lived experience, because they are diverse and their solutions multifaceted,” Anderson said.
Betty Williamson walked up and down the line, burning sage and wafting it onto consenting people with the feather of a red-tailed hawk.
“I’m dispelling darkness,” Williamson said, a fitting description of the event — a small gathering of dedicated people standing together with their dancing lights against the long night, knowing the sun will come again.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read the full Dec. 25 - 31 issue.
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