People experiencing homelessness and their allies carry a symbolic coffin along 14th Street NW in Washington on Dec. 20, 2021. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

For nine years, unhoused people and their advocates have gathered in the District on or around the longest night of the year to commemorate those who died while homeless.

This year’s memorial service, which began at Luther Place Memorial Church in Logan Circle on Monday evening ahead of an all-night vigil in Freedom Plaza, came as D.C.’s homeless residents — already vulnerable in a city with steadily rising home prices — have suffered through two years of the pandemic and a recent spate of encampment clearances.

Amid this historic upheaval, 69 people died “without the dignity of a home” in the District this year, according to literature distributed by vigil organizers. Twenty-two died before they could move into homes after receiving housing vouchers through outreach programs.

Those who died — listed in a program mostly by age, not name, to preserve anonymity — were as young as 23 and as old as 77.

Deaths among D.C.’s homeless jumped this year, including 23 who died of the coronavirus

Reginald Black, advocacy director for the People for Fairness Coalition, the organization behind the vigil, was homeless for about a decade before he secured housing in 2019. Black said he sometimes doesn’t know who among his friends in D.C.’s homeless community have died until he shows up at the vigil each December.

“We need to work faster and smarter and harder to make sure our neighbors have the resources necessary to maintain housing,” Black said. “It is so terrible how we have to do this every year.”

Even as officials say homelessness in the District has declined, the number who died while unhoused had been on the rise. Last year, at least 180 homeless people died in the District — a 54 percent increase over 2019, according to data from the city’s medical examiner.

D.C.’s official tally of deaths among unhoused people often exceeds the informal count kept by advocates. City officials, who have provided death statistics in the past, did not do so this year despite requests.

Vigil organizers also provided a list of 141 formerly homeless people who died after moving into housing. Julie Turner, a social worker for the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, an outreach organization for homeless people, said that although none of her clients died on the street this year, some died in homes they had secured only after years of rough living outside with preexisting medical conditions.

“I think they would have lived a lot longer had they never been out on the street,” Turner said. “Those conditions only worsen. … You can’t medically turn back the hands of time.”

Bobby Watts, CEO of the nonprofit National Health Care for the Homeless Council, said that because of inconsistent record-keeping, it is not clear how many homeless people die nationwide each year. Estimates based on 2018 data show the number could exceed 45,000, Watts said, and probably has gone up because of the pandemic and an increase in drug overdoses. Meanwhile, a homeless person’s life expectancy is 25 years lower than that of the overall population, according to Watts.

“We’re seeing tremendous loss of life prematurely,” Watts said. “We view homelessness not just as a housing crisis but as a public health and moral crisis.”

About 100 people attended the Luther Place ceremony — a return to normalcy after the memorial was mostly exiled to Zoom in 2020 amid the pandemic and widespread protests in which homeless people were displaced from Lafayette Square and the church vandalized by white supremacists.

With the number of local coronavirus cases reaching record highs, nearly all attendees were masked. The vigil commenced hours after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) reinstated the city’s indoor mask mandate to combat the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Speaking in front of a coffin — a reminder of those who died in 2021 — Mike Coleman, who was homeless in the District for about 25 years before finding a home in 2011, waved a list of those who had died.

“Next year, my name might be on this list,” he said.

Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at the outreach organization Miriam’s Kitchen, said 2021 had been a year of “ups and downs” as the District sent mixed messages to its unhoused residents.

On one hand, Bowser pledged D.C. would spend a record $400 million on affordable housing through 2022. However, the pledge came as local authorities cleared long-established tent communities at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW and near Union Station, where one resident was injured by a bulldozer during the removal.

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The D.C. Council, meanwhile, is scheduled to vote Tuesday on emergency legislation sponsored by Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) to halt encampment clearances.

“They can vote to support the Nadeau legislation, thereby increasing … safety and access to services, or they can vote to continue to criminalize homelessness,” Rabinowitz said. “We hope we can cap tomorrow off with a win.”

Brian Carome, CEO of the outreach organization Street Sense, said the pandemic has left empty office space downtown that must be turned into housing, as Bowser recently proposed.

“It’s imperative that we take advantage of the opportunity this provides to convert at least some of that empty space into housing,” he wrote in an email. “Doing so would most certainly save lives.”

After the church service, attendees marched on 14th Street NW to Freedom Plaza escorted by police, shouting, “Housing is a human right!” and bearing “Black Homes Matter” signs. In a city that saw a violent insurrection less than a year ago, the short protest garnered little reaction from onlookers, some of whom filmed the march on their phones.

In Freedom Plaza, Coleman recognized a nearby hotel. He had panhandled in front of the building for many years, he said, and “almost died” there many times of drug and alcohol abuse.

He got off the street by “getting involved,” he said. As temperatures plunged below 40 degrees, he was here to continue the fight.

“I’m trying to help my people,” he said.