The temperature dropped into the teens the night Kelvin Black sat down in Salt Lake City and never got up again. At 39, the homeless man had slept outside for much of his life, but things were finally looking up. Since spring, he'd had his own room at an apartment complex for the formerly homeless, Palmer Court -- though it took him a while to unfold the clean sheets and stop sleeping on the floor.
He should have been one of the success stories. Instead, Black died on the sidewalk about a block and a half from his new home on Dec. 4. Black, who suffered from alcoholism, didn't follow his friends when they encouraged him to go back to Palmer Court on that bitterly cold night. He was among the 58 people -- a new record -- who died this year after struggling with homelessness.
"Here's a kid, he's from a broken family raised out in the street," said Ed Snoddy, who knew Black from his years of work at the Volunteers of America in Utah. "He was probably the first one in his family to have permanent housing."
Community members remembered Black and others at a candlelight vigil at Pioneer Park on Monday night, the fifth year homeless advocates have marked the tragic tally. This year's total was up slightly -- by four people -- over the 2008 number. The data include those who may have recently moved into places such as Palmer Court, but spent decades on the streets.
The punishing years outside, when individuals often battle a fatal combination of hunger, substance abuse and mental illness, lead many to die decades younger than an average Utahn. Among this year's list of dead, the youngest was 30; the oldest, 85. Their average age was 53. Most were men.
Heart attacks, liver failure and diabetes are on the list of ordinary ailments that led to their demise, despite the ongoing efforts of the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health care to the homeless.
The vigil took place the same night many cities across the nation acknowledge the homeless deaths.
"Tonight is the longest night of the year," said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon. "For others, it will be a longer night than for some of us."
Each individual's name was read aloud, leading some in the crowd to embrace as they held their candles in the quiet park. Hearing Brett Shanks' name was difficult for Chris Beane, a counselor at the Rescue Mission, which works with the homeless. Shanks, 48, was hit by a car in November.
"It went by so quick -- reading a name doesn't do a life justice," he said. "Though it's better than nothing at all."
Pamela Atkinson, a leading advocate for Utah's homeless, called for a greater collaboration between public and private agencies. The state has made great strides in the past several years in housing the most frequently homeless, known as the chronically homeless. Palmer Court is one of the most recent solutions, though thousands of Utahns continue to slip into homelessness.
"It has to be a community effort toward providing affordable housing and affordable health care," said Jenn Hyvonen, a spokeswoman for Fourth Street Clinic. "That is how fewer deaths will happen."
In 2009, 58 people died after struggling with homelessness in Utah.
How to help
Fourth Street Clinic is always in need of volunteers and donations. Go to http://www.fourthstreetclinic.org for more information.
The Road Home, the downtown homeless shelter, is also looking for volunteers and donations. Go to http://www.theroadhome.org for more information.