‘There’s a power in coming together’: Vigil held to mourn 121 people who died in Utah this year after experiencing homelessness

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Names of the 121 homeless people who lost their lives were read aloud to remember and honor homeless persons who died in Salt Lake City in 2018 during the Homeless PersonsÕ Memorial Day Candlelight Vigil, December 20, 2018 at Pioneer Park.

Gloved hands clasped slim white candles on Thursday as the moon came up over Pioneer Park and a list of 121 names echoed into the night.

Jodie Johnson. Tim Daughtery. Gabriel Tally. Margie Lawson. Javier Delrio.

For some, the brief utterance of their names — a wisp of warm air brought into a cold night — will be the only recognition their deaths will ever receive.

“There’s a power in coming together,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox during his remarks before a crowd of around 300 people at the vigil honoring those who had experienced homelessness and died over the last year. “I believe that when communities come together, when we light those candles, when we think and we read the names of the people, when we say their names, they are not forgotten. And that is powerful. And it gives us hope to the world that we can improve, that we can come together and we can make a difference.”

The annual vigil, organized by a number of homeless service providers — including The INN Between, The Other Side Academy and The Road Home — took place in the epicenter of Operation Rio Grande, an all-out attack on homelessness, open drug use and crime in the Pioneer Park area near The Road Home.

Several of those in attendance carried tarps and clothes in plastic garbage bags as they came to honor friends lost to the elements or sickness on the streets.

Of the 121 who died over the last year, 55 were formerly homeless but died in care facilities and rapid-rehousing units, according to Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for the homeless.

She rattled off the statistics: 34 were women. Seventeen were veterans. The youngest was 20; the oldest was 80. Their average age of death was 53. And they were “daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and friends.”

It took nearly five minutes for advocates to read all the names during the hourlong event, and those in the audience sat in reverent silence, swaying slightly and brushing away tears with their free hands.

“When I was a child growing up in England, I was strongly and sternly told that one must never cry; it was something about the stiff British upper lip or something like that,” Atkinson said after the names were read. “... One of the things that I learned in this country is that it’s okay to cry — particularly when 121 people have died.”

The list of those who died was longer than at any recent vigils. There were 91 in 2015, 97 in 2016 and 117 in 2017. While it’s possible that more people died on the streets, it could also be that those dedicated to helping the homeless have become better able to keep track of the dead.

The event struck close to home for Orval Boss, a resident at a homeless hospice and medical care facility in Salt Lake City.

“Many homeless men and women die on the streets each and every year,” said Boss. “I myself have come painfully close to death. And I feel like sometimes people just don’t care.”

A diabetic who has had four amputations, Boss became homeless as his medical bills stacked up. He’s currently being treated at The INN Between for a heart condition and bone infection in his foot and credits the facility with saving his life many times over.

This vigil "really drives home the whole reason we do what we do, which is to prevent people from dying on the streets,” said Kim Correa, executive director of The INN Between. “And it’s a way for the community to come together and honor those who passed. We’re proud to have been able to have helped 85 this year. But a lot of people didn’t have it so lucky.”

As they left the vigil and blew out their candles, some headed for the warmth of their homes. Others gathered their tarps and began the search for a safe place to sleep on the streets. Many remarked how lucky it was that it was such a warm December night.