A group of more than 200 people stood in silence at Pioneer Park on Thursday night, some of them wiping away tears as the names of 94 people who died while experiencing homelessness or who were previously homeless rang out into the night.
Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for the homeless, had just read off the statistics: The oldest person who died was 85, while the youngest was 20 years old. Twenty of the deceased were women; 17 were veterans. And 43% had a place to call home when they died, whether in hospice, permanent supportive housing or rapid rehousing facilities.
The annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Candlelight Vigil on Thursday provided a broad picture of those who died on Salt Lake City’s streets since last year’s vigil. But it was also meant to ensure each one of the 94 who passed since last year’s event was remembered as more than a number.
“These were people with vibrant lives and careers,” Atkinson said. “They endured through struggles. They cherished moments that brought them joy. Tonight, we remember each of them.”
The hourlong vigil — organized by a number of homeless service providers, including The INN Between, The Other Side Academy and The Road Home — took place in what was once the epicenter of homeless services and Operation Rio Grande, an all-out attack on homelessness, open drug use and crime in the Pioneer Park area near the downtown emergency shelter.
The Road Home’s downtown shelter has since closed and Salt Lake City’s homeless population has dispersed to two new resource centers in the capital city and a third in South Salt Lake in a transition that has been dogged by worries about capacity, with space for about 400 fewer people in the three new resource centers than could fit in the larger shelter.
Some community activists have worried the center’s closure could exacerbate deaths on the street, and on Thursday, a group stood silently near the edges of the event holding not candles but signs written in black Sharpie bearing messages meant to serve as a reminder of those concerns.
“Freezing to death is no option,” read one.
“Who will die needlessly tonight?” asked another.
A list of the causes of death for the individuals who have died since last year’s vigil is incomplete, but at least five were a result of exposure or were found outside, according to information provided to The Salt Lake Tribune from the Fourth Street Clinic, which gathers the annual data. One man was found unresponsive under the viaduct on 900 South; another was discovered in a snowbank the day after Christmas last year.
Still, Atkinson stressed Thursday that “many of those who died died in housing and died in better circumstances than those who died on the streets.” And the majority of those with a listed cause of death died of cancer.
Over the past week, the Salt Lake City area’s three homeless resource centers have been at or near capacity each night, according to information from the Department of Workforce Services, which is helping with the transition to the new system for homeless services.
Overflow space for men on mats at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall has been full, while the “warming” location at the Weigand Center, which offers not a place to sleep but a chair for someone to get out of the cold, has had a maximum 140 people move through.
Despite the space concerns, Atkinson praised the “dedicated” efforts of community service providers who have come together to make the system work and highlighted the increased access to health care in the new centers, thanks to a mobile bus clinic that visits each shelter weekly.
That’s important for a community that’s “vulnerable” to health conditions that for someone with more resources would be no big deal, she said.
“Health care is absolutely vital, as we all know,” Atkinson said during the vigil. “It’s paramount as year after year, people on the street have a more difficult time managing chronic illness or injury and statistically they die younger than those who are housed.”
The average age of those who died was 57 — 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.
During the program, Shylo Martinez, a client at The Other Side Academy, told the crowd about how he was homeless and “addicted to drugs” two years ago. He recounted his “low spots,” including stealing his father’s wedding ring to feed his dependency.
“I was so overwhelmed,” he said.
Now, Martinez says he’s looking to give back to his community, not take from it. And he credits The Other Side Academy for helping him rebuild his life and saving him from the fate of the 94 people who were remembered Thursday night.
“Remembering the ones we’ve lost is close to me,” he said. “I’ve lost so many people. I’ve overdosed several times.
“I could very well be one of those candles if it wasn’t for The Other Side Academy,” he concluded.