Last Wednesday evening the garish holiday lights on the Denver City & County Building were dimmed to allow a smaller glow to brighten the front of the structure: the flicker of about 200 candles held in honor of the homeless who passed away on the streets of Denver this year.
For the 25th year, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless held a vigil for individuals who had died on the street. After words from Coalition president/CEO John Parvensky and Mayor Michael Hancock, and a poem by Coalition board member and homeless advocate Randle Loeb, all the names of those who'd passed away were read aloud, with those attending the vigil holding up their candles and repeating "We Will Remember" after each one.
This year, 84 individuals were remembered at the memorial, though more names were mentioned as the audience shouted out some that were missing from the list. The names read had been submitted throughout the year by those who knew the individuals; for some who'd died, the vigil was the only service they'd have in honor of their lives.
More than 100 people attended a vigil on the morning of December 20 in Boulder; 23 homeless people were lost this year in that town. The service also honored Gene Culbertson, the founder of the START Homeless Day Resource Center, now known as Boulder Bridge House.
During Denver's ceremony, Parvensky reminded the crowd of the importance of Housing First, which focuses resources on providing housing for homeless individuals even as they are still dealing with the the causes that led them to life on the streets. Advocates for affordable housing have criticized the city's latest project: the purchase of a 25,000 square foot building in the Athmar Park neighborhood that will house a behavioral health crisis center. The center will have sixteen intake beds and another thirty beds where individuals in crisis can stay for thirty days, but advocates would like to see money spent on more stable housing.
The mayor has included affordable housing with homeless services as a priority in his five-year housing plan announced this October, and Housing First has been a focus of the city's ten year plan to end homelessness, although the city also has had to redirect resources toward emergency shelter beds in the past few years.
According to the Coalition's current report, "We Will Remember 2014: Homeless Death Review," deaths on the streets have decreased since 2008, when 164 individuals passed away. At the end of 2013, 124 individuals were remembered.
The 2014 report lists the main cause of deaths this year as complications from drug and alcohol abuse, followed by heart disease and then homicide/suicide. The ages of those who passed while homeless ranged from five months to 79, and the average was 49.
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Surprisingly, the most deaths -- 33 -- occurred in the spring, according to the report; winter was the second highest with 24, followed by summer and fall.
Individuals who have experienced homelessness are often more susceptible to disease due to the lack of health care, the stress of living on the street, and exposure to the elements. "Without housing and health care, simple cuts become infected, routine colds develop into pneumonia, and manageable chronic diseases such as asthma, hypertension, diabetes and HIV become disabling, life-threatening, and costly conditions," the report notes.
As the former director of the Denver VOICE, I'd attended these vigils over the past few years, but this year was personal as well as professional. Two names resonated in my head when they were read off: Eric "Fuzzy" Johnson and Manuela Shaw, two Denver VOICE vendors I'd worked with. These losses were hard in different ways: one death was expected, but a life snuffed out by cancer too quickly; the other was unexpected, and the end wrenchingly lonely.
For so many of us at the event, the names read came with faces, personalities, triumphs and challenges, and very human stories. That's something a lot of people don't get to experience: the person behind the homeless person. Have a tip? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.