The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At least 77 people died homeless in nation’s capital this year

Unhoused people and their allies march Tuesday through downtown Washington in an annual vigil for those who died without a home in the past year. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

At least 77 homeless people have died in the District so far in 2022, according to D.C.’s medical examiner, perishing by intoxication, hypothermia, homicide and other causes as officials and the White House battle a problem entrenched in American life.

On Tuesday evening — during which temperatures were set to drop below freezing — advocates in the city held an annual overnight vigil for those who died unhoused, sharing their stories and releasing data that largely tracks the District’s.

If the triple-digit death toll among D.C. unhoused residents in recent years is a guide, the number of deaths probably will increase dramatically as the medical examiner, whose statistics reflect a 90-day delay, completes additional autopsies and releases their results.

More than half of the “undomiciled” deaths in the District were because of intoxication, data show, with cardiovascular disease a distant second. Four homicides and three deaths by hypothermia were also recorded.

The numbers appeared on track to easily exceed 100 as in recent years. In 2020, at least 180 homeless people died in the city — a number not far behind the nearly 200 homicides in the city that year — and 138 died in 2021, according to the medical examiner.

Homeless people and advocates gathered about 4 p.m. Tuesday for the vigil at Luther Place Memorial Church at Thomas Circle in Northwest Washington. On display was a coffin — a symbol of those who died “without the dignity of a home,” as many advocates put it.

Speaking to the group of about 50 people, Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said those who died were “fathers, mothers, daughters and sons.”

“This is a day I regret the most,” he said. “It’s a day that never should have to happen.”

With “pallbearers” carrying the coffin, the group then marched down 14th Street through downtown traffic to Freedom Plaza, chanting “Housing is a human right!” The protesters passed gleaming shops and hotels — at least two of which had homeless people camped out front, panhandling or ensconced in makeshift shelters of blankets and clothes as the night grew colder.

At Freedom Plaza, the protesters gathered in a large, plastic-walled tent where food and coffee were served. Organizers said they expected about a dozen people to stay on the plaza overnight.

William Long, 61, said he was homeless in D.C. for four years after being released from prison. As he drank coffee in a Boston Red Sox hat, he reflected on the experience.

“I lost everything I had,” he said. “I came out trying to get help.”

Long said he stayed in a number of places temporarily, including a shelter and a hotel room set aside by the city for people who tested positive for the coronavirus. He preferred a tent, he said, because even amid freezing temperatures, it offered privacy.

After being evicted from his tent in Franklin Square when that park was redone, he was able to secure a housing voucher in January. He now lives in an apartment with a concierge near Thomas Circle.

Anyone who is homeless, Long said, must work hard not just to survive but to make sure that programs and counselors meant to help them are working effectively.

“Always pray,” he said. “Be determined. Ask questions. … You can’t go with what they tell you.”

Ahead of the vigil Tuesday, Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at the homeless outreach organization Miriam’s Kitchen, shared a list compiled by advocates of 70 people who died without housing. The people were mostly identified by their initials and age.

Rabinowitz said that while detailed data was not available for all the people who died, 60 percent “were matched” to a housing voucher but died before they could secure housing, and more than half were Black.

“They were in need of supportive housing immediately,” he said in an interview. “The fact that they died before … shows we have to move with more urgency.”

D.C. officials declined to comment.

The White House and officials across the country have announced new initiatives to fight homelessness in recent weeks, some of which would dramatically change the way unhoused people are treated in encampments and on city streets.

On Monday, the Biden administration released a plan to reduce homelessness by 25 percent in the next two years, focusing on racial equity and affordable housing, among other initiatives.

Biden’s announcement came after New York’s mayor said earlier this month that he would institutionalize mentally ill homeless people against their will, and Los Angeles’s mayor declared a state of emergency to battle homelessness in a city where encampments are endemic.

D.C.’s efforts to contain homelessness have been no less dramatic. In the past three years, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has cleared encampments around Union Station and in other areas. Federal officials have also cleared encampments on federal land near the station and in parks.

Mayor Bowser promised to end homelessness. Here’s how it’s going.

In April, Bowser said the number of homeless people in the city hit a 17-year low, falling 47 percent since the city announced a plan to combat homelessness in 2015.

Joseph Mettimano, president and chief executive of Central Union Mission, a nonprofit organization that runs a homeless shelter near Union Station, said he’d known at least a dozen people who “perished on the streets” in his 20-year career. Remembering those who die is important, he said.

“It’s definitely a somber day but a good point in time to raise the profile of homelessness in the city,” he said of the vigil. “There is a whole group of human beings out there who need assistance.”