The Washington Post

Advocates for homeless observe national memorial day


Homeles and former homeless people and advocates march Friday with an empty pine coffin to remember the homeless who have died in the past year in Washington, D.C. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Elgin Sanders spent years under a building overhang near the corner of 15th and M streets NW, sleeping in a makeshift shelter his friends dubbed the “cardboard bungalow.” Patrick Early was famous for breaking into spontaneous dancing as he sang church hymns with the Welcome Table Choir. And Eloise Early, or “El,” was larger than life, particularly when she found dressy high heels in the clothing donation closet at Miriam’s Kitchen.

Sanders, 55, died in September of meningitis he wasn’t able to manage on the street. Patrick Early, who appeared to be suffering from untreated dementia at 51, was hit by a truck. And no one really knows how old El Early was, or what happened to her.

“Elgin had the mind of a genius. He was a walking encyclopedia,” said his friend and cardboard bungalow neighbor, Byron Hawkins, or “B,” who was with him when he died.

“Nobody should be left out here,” said Hawkins’s wife, Davinia, who said Sanders had been homeless for 27 years. “Nobody should ever die alone.”

Sanders, Patrick Early and El Early were just three of at least 26 homeless people who were largely invisible while alive and anonymous when they died on the streets of the District this year. Rather than letting their names and stories slip into obscurity, advocates sought not only to remember them on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day on Friday, but to call for an end to homelessness and so many needless, early deaths.

“Homeless people are dying young, and they’re dying from preventable and manageable diseases,” said Kurt Runge, director of advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending chronic homelessness. “The biggest risk factor is not having a safe place to call home.”

National studies have found that homeless people are three to four times more likely to die than the general population. And while life expectancy for the average person in the United States is nearly 80 years, for a homeless person, it’s between the ages of 42 and 52.

The premature deaths are more highly associated with poorly managed acute and chronic medical conditions than with mental illness, substance abuse or weather, the studies found. Although the District is one of the few cities in the country to give homeless residents a legal right to shelter on a freezing night, the studies show homeless people die throughout the year.

For more than 20 years, Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, on or around Dec. 21, the longest and often one of the coldest nights of the year, has sought to call attention to those deaths.

This year, Washington is one of about 150 cities commemorating an estimated 2,000 known deaths — both high-profile deaths such as those of the five homeless men found frozen in the San Francisco Bay area in a recent cold snap and the deaths of the unnamed and unremarked individuals who simply disappear.

To drive the point home, homeless and formerly homeless advocates with the People for Fairness Coalition on Thursday held an all-night candlelight vigil over a pine casket on Freedom Plaza in full view of the gleaming Capitol dome and just one block from the White House. And Friday, after a rally and march with the casket to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for a funeral service, they placed a plastic urn atop it with the ashes of “John Doe,” a homeless person who died unknown.

The urn is only one of more than three dozen urns of anonymous homeless dead kept at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter, said Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, one of the main sponsors of the memorial day.

“Today we honor John Doe. We don’t know his real name. Details about the date of death have been lost along the way,” Jones said during the service. “The absence of having anything specific to say about John Doe at his own eulogy says volumes about us as a society.”

Recent surveys have found that on a given night, about 7,000 people in the District are homeless, 1,700 of them chronically homeless.

At the memorial day events, homeless people and advocates called for more funding for “housing first” programs that put the homeless in housing first, then bring services such as counseling for mental health and substance abuse to them, rather than expecting homeless people to resolve issues first and then get stable housing.

The approach has been effective across the country, research shows, in both moving the homeless into stable housing and in saving public funds that would have otherwise gone into high-priced emergency services in hospitals, jails, detox facilities and psychiatric wards.

Deaths in Washington have fallen dramatically since 2007, when more than 100 people died on the streets. Advocates say the city’s decision in 2008 to fund permanent, supportive housing programs for the chronically homeless may be a big reason why.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was one of a number of city officials and mayoral hopefuls, including Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, who stopped by the vigil or the rally and promised to work to end homelessness.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the city is “happy to take up this fight” but needs neighboring jurisdictions to join in.

At the funeral service, Dana Woolfolk, with the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, solemnly read each of the 26 names of the homeless people who had died, as he has every year, praying that next year, there would be no need to.

In the minutes before he was to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his deep bass-baritone with the rest of the Welcome Table homeless choir, Eric Sheptock looked at the list of the names of the dead and stopped short.

“Oh, wow. Henry Shoates,” he said of the famously cantankerous man. “I knew I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks. But I didn’t know he died.”

Sheptock is nearly 45. He has been homeless off and on since 1994. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how the average homeless person dies in their 50s. In five years, that’ll be me.”

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.

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