This year, at least 159 homeless Utahns died. The death toll is likely higher, officials say.

The dead were honored during a vigil at Pioneer Park. This is the only memorial many will have.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crowds gather for the Homeless Persons' Memorial Candlelight Vigil at Pioneer Park, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Rhonda Hufferd died in May. She was 52 years old, short and blonde. Born in Tacoma, Washington, she and her husband James were living, unsheltered, in Salt Lake City for about eight years before her death.

On Wednesday night, before a winter storm blew icy wind and dropped soft, Styrofoam-like graupel that coated Salt Lake City’s streets and sidewalks, James Hufferd parked his wheelchair on a concrete walkway in downtown’s Pioneer Park for her memorial. He held a paper coffee cup and the evening’s program, and listened to speakers from behind the other attendees — about 300 people — who stood in front of him on the wet grass crews had recently cleared of a layer of snow from a storm the week before.

Rhonda Hufferd was one of 152 whose names were read at the memorial for people who died while experiencing homelessness, or after struggling to stay housed, in the last year. This was Hufferd’s only funeral, her husband said, explaining that at the time, “I was basically too out of it to arrange anything.”

While the program listed 152 names, this year’s event officially honored 159 people who have died since last Dec. 21, the winter solstice and longest night of the year, state homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser told attendees of the annual memorial.

The list of deaths grew in the hours before Wednesday’s vigil, as advocates learned of others or remembered deaths from earlier in the year, said Laurel Ingham, development director at the Fourth Street Clinic, a group that provides healthcare and other services to the homeless.

Last year, there were 117 names on the list, more than double the 53 reported in 2020, although officials said the coronavirus pandemic could have led to an undercount. There were 94 deaths in 2019, 121 in 2018, 117 in 2017 and 97 in 2016.

Ingham said she did not know why so many more people died in the last year, partly because there is no system for tracking these deaths. Names are collected through word of mouth from community partners or the police.

Even the 159 deaths was likely an undercount, Niederhauser said, because the state hasn’t kept track. That will change in 2023, he announced during the program, because medical examiners will begin logging a dead person’s housing status.

This data will give the state insight into the life expectancy and causes of death of Utah’s homeless population, Niederhauser said, and help officials decide where to spend money for supportive services.

He called it “a monumental change,” adding that it “will inform our collective efforts to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring for years to come.”

The youngest person on this year’s list was 18. The oldest was 78. At least five of the people honored Wednesday died of exposure on the streets after winter storms in the last few weeks. Others, Niederhauser said, died of chronic illnesses, injuries or suicide — “medical conditions that were exacerbated by living in conditions that were not meant for human habitation.”

At least two on the list — Megan Mohn and Nykon Brandon — were killed after being restrained by Salt Lake City police.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kseniya Kniazeva comforts Kristine Houtz, during Homeless Persons' Memorial Candle Light Vigil at Pioneer Park, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Remembering the dead and assigning responsibility

The focal point of Wednesday’s program was a temporary stage setup at the park’s northeast corner. Dozens of electric tea candles, wrapped in white sheets of paper bearing the name of an honoree, lined the front of the stage. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, governor’s office advisor Mike Mower and other officials sat in rows of chairs set up behind the display.

Attendees gathered in front of the stage, lit from behind by the soft, yellow glow of Christmas lights strung in park trees and by the white tapered candles they held in memory of those who had died.

Herbert Elliot, a community advisory board member for the Fourth Street Clinic, told the crowd about his struggles with substance misuse and how he found clarity through the Bible.

“Remember,” he repeated throughout his speech, “there’s no shame in suffering, but there is shame in shaming suffering.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Herbert Elliott speaks at the Homeless Persons Memorial at Pioneer Park, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Steffine Amodt, who serves on the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness’s lived experience task force, asked those gathered to pay attention to people experiencing homelessness, to care about them — because it makes a difference.

Ten years ago, she became homeless and lived with her daughter without stable housing for five years.

She said it was exhausting to carry around the “unbearable weight of shame, fear and hopelessness” and constant anxiety. Compassion from others, Amodt said, is was what got her out of that mindset, gave her hope for the future and the strength to overcome. With that, she applied for and got into an apartment. Then she enrolled in college, and later interned with Republican state Rep. Steve Eliason.

Now, she is in a good place and does outreach for people experiencing homelessness. But it’s tiring and frustrating, she said, watching “as [unsheltered people] get exhausted from abatements and from the constant abuse that they get from some of society’s best.”

“The police,” someone in the crowd yelled as an example. Another yelled, “the mayor.”

Amodt said that as five people froze to death in Salt Lake City in recent days, most were more worried about what gifts to put under their Christmas trees. Those shopping turn a blind eye to those people’s problems, or get angry at the “unsightliness” of it.

She said paying attention, getting to know these people, can changes lives, like it did hers.

“There are too many people out here on the streets, who have the potential to go through the same kind of transformation that I’ve just shared with you,” Amodt said. “All they need is the right support and compassion.”

The vigil ended about an hour after it started, with a prayer from Rev. Canon Libby Hunter, from the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. By this point, most candles had melted down and were extinguished. Attendees stood, bundled in coats, scarves and knit hats, as Hunter spoke. The wind, barely blowing when the program started, had picked up.

“On this longest night, on the solstice night, we’re experiencing 60 minutes of darkness and cold and a little discomfort,” she said, “but they have spent days and months and years in darkness, freezing cold weather and withering heat.”

“On the solstice night, we’re looking with hope for tomorrow, when the days will be longer and the nights will be shorter, to a hopeful new year,” she continued. “We ask, Lord, that you keep all the decision makers and elected officials to have the wisdom, strength and funding to provide safe, affordable housing to all of the people here.”

Most of the attendees listened quietly through the vigil, but a small group near the stage wanted to send a message. They held signs that read: “Causing pain & trauma is not policy. It’s a crime,” and “They died on your watch, Mayor,” and shouted quips intermittently. They groaned when Hunter mentioned elected officials.

Hunter ended the prayer saying those lost “are finally safe in [God’s] warm and encompassing love. Amen.”

After the prayer, Niederhauser announced the program was over, and, less than a beat later, a quick burst of protest erupted from the group.

“All of those deaths were preventable,” shouted Rae Duckworth, who leads the local Black Lives Matter group. Another shouted, “Blood is on your hands, Mendenhall.”

Some tried to quiet the shouts, pleading that the night was about reverence for the people who died.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Ause holds a sign during the Homeless Persons' Memorial Candlelight Vigil at Pioneer Park, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Duckworth responded, “Don’t you dare shake your heads at me.”

Through the commotion, a man took the microphone on stage to announce to the unsheltered people in the audience that the First United Methodist Church was hosting a movie night to get folks out of the cold. He said there would be another movie night on Thursday, when temperatures were expected to drop to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Duckworth commended him, saying, “That’s who keeps them warm, not Mendenhall, not Wilson.”

“They had to wait for blood to be shed in order to open something up. We have winter every year. When does winter stop? ... She has options and doesn’t use them,” Duckworth said. “That’s why we’re here. We lost people.”

Mendenhall signed an emergency order Tuesday to expand shelter space, and Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood have also said they would increase capacity at the shelters in their cities.

The mayors’ moves added about 95 new beds to shelters across the county, for a total of about 1,100 — equal to the number available before crews closed and demolished downtown’s Rio Grande shelter, creating a dearth of hundreds of beds and scattering once centralized resources.

It’s unclear when those shelter beds will become available.

The National Weather Service forecasted “dangerously cold air” with sub-freezing temperatures and wind chill below zero from Wednesday evening into Thursday. They warned frostbite — someone’s flesh freezing — can occur within 30 minutes if skin is left exposed.

They advocated wearing warm clothing, lessening skin exposure to the cold and limiting time outside. Some living — and dying — in Salt Lake City don’t have those options.

‘I turn my heat up just a little bit more, and I pray’

James Hufferd remained at the vigil for about an hour after it ended. He said he and his wife, Rhonda, had applied for housing a handful of times while living in Salt Lake City, but it never worked out because there were too many barriers, most of them unnecessary, he said.

A reporter asked Hufferd what he wanted people to know about Rhonda. “Um,” he said, collecting his thoughts on the quarter century of partnership for a few seconds in silence. He eventually said, “Nothing.”

But this snow, he said, it’s not like anything he had ever seen. There had been so much, so early this year.

Hufferd added later something he did want people to know: “It’s kind of ludicrous that people these days seem to have such a short memory about things that are going on.”

Things, he said, like how the old Road Home shelter, at 210 S. Rio Grande St., bought by the state for millions, demolished and sold to developers, left a shortage of shelter beds.

“Which was really, really stupid because the number [of people experiencing homelessness] is not going to go down. It’s going to go up, unless they provide easier access to housing,” he said. “They just have too many stupid loopholes that you have to jump through in order to get housing.”

He put on his thin, gray gloves before rolling himself away in his wheelchair. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you the information you’re really looking for,” he said, and headed back to his home at The INN Between, which provides respite and end-of-life care for vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.

Tina Wedlake, who had been standing near Hufferd, said Wednesday’s weather almost stopped her from coming to the vigil. It was the first time she had come to the memorial since she got into an apartment three years ago.

“It was just too much because I knew so many people that I’d slept with them on the tile floor and then the next thing I know they’re dead,” she said. “Overdoses. Freezing. Suicides. Homicides. I just couldn’t do it.”

But Wedlake came this year to support her friend, her “street daughter,” Brooklyn Tyree, who was killed in May. Prosecutors have charged her ex-boyfriend with fatally shooting her.

Coming out tonight, she said, brought her back to when she lived on the streets, where people called her “Mouse” (because she talks so much) or “Swinger” (because she passed the time on the swings at Pioneer Park). She said she broke into tears when she got to the park.

Nights like these, she said, when it’s so cold, she worries about the people who are in the position she was once in, and tries to comfort herself how she can.

“I turn my heat up just a little bit more, and I pray that they’ll not be dying, because it shouldn’t happen,” she said. “It’s preventable.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wayne Niederhauser speaks at the Homeless Persons' Memorial Candlelight Vigil at Pioneer Park, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

They just need a place to go and some compassion.