Annual vigil mourns the 53 homeless Utahns who died this year

The average age of death was 58, and at least three died as a result of exposure or were found outside.

Utah’s homeless advocates and service providers gathered for a virtual vigil on Monday — the longest night of the year — to honor the lives of the 53 homeless or formerly homeless people who died in the state in 2020.

They were “daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and friends,” said Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for the homeless, during the vigil.

“These were people with vibrant lives and careers,” she added. “They endured through struggles and cherished moments that brought them joy. Tonight, we remember each and every one of them.”

The annual 40-minute vigil — organized by a number of homeless service providers, including The INN Between, The Other Side Academy and The Road Home — has in previous years taken place at Pioneer Park, which was once the epicenter of homeless services and Operation Rio Grande. But the event went virtual this year to avoid the risk of spreading the coronavirus, and participants were urged instead to light a candle at home.

A list of the causes of death for the individuals who have died since last year’s vigil is incomplete, but at least three passed away as a result of exposure or were found outside, according to information provided to The Salt Lake Tribune from the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health care services to the homeless and gathers the annual death data.

Among those was a man who “froze to death” on Jan. 8, in the midst of a capacity crisis within the Salt Lake City area’s new homeless resource centers. But not all of those deaths were attributable to weather. One of the women who died was found on the streets in late July, according to data from the Fourth Street Clinic.

Utah’s homeless individuals also have not been able to escape the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has raged through the state over the past few months, sickening more than 250,000 and killing more than 1,000 Utahns. Death data shows at least three of the deaths among people experiencing homelessness were attributed to COVID-19.

Salt Lake County reported its first coronavirus death among the homeless population in May. And at least two people died as a result of a coronavirus outbreak at the Lantern House shelter in Ogden this fall: one an older male resident, and the other a single mother.

(The pandemic hit the homeless resource centers in Salt Lake County hard early on, but the numbers have declined since. As of last week, there were 65 active cases within the homeless shelters in the county.)

The Fourth Street Clinic’s list also attributes four of the deaths to cancer, three to cardiac arrest and two to congestive heart failure. A cause of death was not listed or known for 28 of the 53 people on the list.

Many people experiencing homelessness, Atkinson noted, “have a more difficult time managing their chronic illness, injury or disease. And statistically, they die younger than those who are housed.”

The average age of those who died was 58 — close to the average U.S. life expectancy of 51 for people experiencing homelessness but a far cry below the average age of 78 years for the population at large. The youngest person who died was 27, while the oldest was 97.

The list of the deceased in 2020 was shorter than at last year’s vigil, which mourned the deaths of 94 people who had experienced homelessness. There were 121 names in 2018, 117 in 2017, 97 in 2016 and 91 in 2015.

James Jarrard, a spokesman for the Fourth Street Clinic, said the dip more likely represents an undercount because of the pandemic than it does an actual drop in deaths.

“I feel like individuals at different agencies may have not necessarily dropped the ball but I think [reporting on these deaths] slipped through the cracks” as they scrambled to deal with the public health crisis, he said in an interview on Monday.

But while the pandemic has posed many challenges for the state’s homeless service providers, Atkinson praised their response to the coronavirus, which she said has been characterized by a heightened collaboration among those who care for the homeless population.

“It is truly tremendous,” she said, “to see our community partners working in tandem, working collaboratively to get men, women and families out of homelessness and into a life of security and stability.”

Around 31% of those who died this year had a place to call home when they passed, Atkinson said.

During her remarks, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall mourned those who died while noting the symbolism of holding the vigil on the longest night of the year.

“Our winters in Salt Lake City are dark and cold and long, and no one knows this more intimately than the individuals and the families who are without shelter,” she said. “We mourn those who died this year and we think of their loved ones and families and the pain they feel.”

And as state leaders and service providers grapple with spikes in demand for homeless services amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mendenhall also used her remarks to call for action to help people exit homelessness, noting that 2020 “has shown us just how fragile housing stability is for so many Utahns.”

“Leaders must work collectively to find sustainable solutions so that no one goes without shelter,” she said, “so that no one dies on our streets.”