Bundled in gloves, beanies and scarves, more than 200 people gathered at Pioneer Park on Tuesday to honor the lives of 117 homeless or formerly homeless people who died in Utah in 2021.
At a candlelight vigil on the longest night of the year, some onlookers held candles to their fingers for warmth as they listened to housing advocates and service providers read the names of those who died.
“We understand that it’s cold, but this is what our homeless friends experience every year,” said Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for the homeless.
The annual vigil — organized by a number of homeless service providers, including the Other Side Academy, the Fourth Street Clinic and the INN Between — returned to Pioneer Park after it was moved to a virtual format in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Atkinson praised the efforts of advocates and government officials to address homelessness in Utah, including the construction of The Magnolia, a 65-unit housing project for chronically homeless people in downtown Salt Lake City.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson read a proclamation signed by Gov. Spencer Cox that noted the symbolism of the winter solstice and designated Dec. 21, 2021 as Homeless Persons Memorial Day. “We are not only trying to help individuals, but also build up our systems that are in place to help care for people while they’re in crisis, but also before they reach that crisis point,” she said.
Henderson said the state now provides more accessible mental health services, healthcare, better housing and better job training to people who are without housing.
“The homelessness crisis in Utah is more than just housing. ... It’s about culture, community, and caring and loving,” Henderson added.
Fred Rivers, a member of the Fourth Street Clinic’s Consumer Advisory board, shared stories from when he lived in a broken shopping cart on the street. Rivers moved to Utah from the East Coast during the 2002 Winter Olympics, but found himself without money after the games ended.
Rivers recalled a man who gave him a coffee and a breakfast burrito on a cold winter morning after he had lost everything. “He said, ‘Hey buddy, I’d like to give this to you.’ You do not know how much that simple act of kindness meant to me,” Rivers said.
He encouraged the crowd to care for the people around them and reminded attendees that, “homelessness does not discriminate.”
Attendees observed a moment of silence and listened to songs performed by the Other Side Academy Choir.
The average age of the 117 who reportedly died was 53-years-old — close to the average U.S. life expectancy of 51 for people experiencing homelessness, which falls well below the average life expectancy of 78 years for the population at large. The youngest person who died in Utah was 19 and the oldest was 80. Nine were veterans, according to the Fourth Street Clinic. Thirty were women.
The 2021 death toll was more than double the 53 people who reportedly died in 2020 — though that total may have been undercounted because of the pandemic, advocates said. There were 94 deaths in 2019, 121 in 2018, 117 in 2017, and 97 in 2016.
Agencies including the Volunteers of America-Utah, The Road Home, Catholic Community Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Salt Lake County Housing Authority report deaths to Fourth Street Clinic, which compiles the informal list each year.
About 12% of those who died this year had a place to call home at the time of their deaths, Atkinson said.
The causes of death for almost all of the 117 who died in the past year were not reported this year, said James Jarrard, a spokesperson for the Fourth Street Clinic. Three were struck by automobiles.
Staffing shortages have delayed the opening of winter shelter space to keep people off the frigid streets.
The Road Home, one of the county’s primary homeless service providers, needs to hire about 30 new employees to staff a temporary 250-bed shelter on North Temple Street. Volunteers of America-Utah has had trouble recruiting six additional employees to run a smaller overflow site in the downtown area.