His name was Sheikh Zayed Sultan Aal-Nahyan, but to his friends he was just Zeke, sometimes just Z.
He went to East Potomac Park sometimes as a child growing up in the District, and as an adult, he liked the scenery there just as much. He had a daughter in Georgia he hoped to reconnect with.
He died in 2015, after 13 years of homelessness.
Zeke’s name, along with the names of 40 other people who died amid homelessness, was written on a placard carried by activists down 14th Street NW for a memorial vigil.
All 41 lives were severely shortened by the extraordinary difficulties of life without a home, the nonprofit employees, formerly homeless people and supporters at the vigil said.
“Housing is a human right. No one needs to die tonight,” they chanted.
Courtney Pladsen, a nurse practitioner who treats homeless patients through Unity Health Care, cited research showing that homeless people die 20 to 30 years sooner than their peers who are in similar circumstances but remain housed.
“The person in the apartment could live into their 60s or 70s. The person on the streets could live to see their 30s or 40s,” Pladsen said. “That’s happening now. Here.”
She said she has seen the devastating effects of homelessness — as a teenager, when relatives lost their home and had to move into a shelter, and now in her medical work.
Her patients run the risk of having their medications stolen along with their other possessions when they sleep in shelters. Their asthma is aggravated by changing temperatures when they sleep outdoors. They suffer from hypothermia and heatstroke.
And diabetics who need to keep their medication cold often have no access to a refrigerator. Like Zeke. Eliot Gold, who was Zeke’s case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, said that Zeke lost all the toes on one foot to diabetes during his long years of homelessness.
Finally, he got his own apartment through a permanent supportive housing program. But in less than a month, Gold and a co-worker were heartbroken to find Zeke in the apartment in a diabetic coma.
“A lot of people are tense. A lot of people are angry about things that have gone wrong,” Gold said of the people he works with. “Zeke was just the most patient, kind, understanding client. He had some quality that allowed him to be so patient with me. I went to his funeral, and his family said he was always like that.”
Gold marched in Zeke’s memory Thursday night, one of more than 50 marchers who carried lanterns and an empty flower-decked coffin from Luther Place Memorial Church to Freedom Plaza at the start of an all-night vigil.
Ken Martin, who sells the homeless newspaper Street Sense and contributes to it, started the event with a moving speech about the potentially fatal consequences of homelessness.
Years ago, he said, he had a heart attack on a Sunday and heart surgery on Monday. On the subsequent Wednesday, he was released from the hospital. With nowhere to go, he slept that night on a chair outside a Starbucks. On Thursday, he had another heart attack. He went back to the hospital — and then back to the Starbucks chair.
“There is nothing but the grace of God that kept me alive,” Martin said. “We live in a community that doesn’t accept the fact that housing saves lives. . . . We’ve gotta do better.”
The People for Fairness Coalition, an activist group of homeless and housed people which led the event, urged the D.C. Council to fully fund a plan called Homeward D.C., which would create more permanent supportive housing. Laura Zeilinger, who is in charge of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s push to end homelessness in the District, spoke to the gathering to affirm the administration’s commitment.
Jesse Rabinowitz, a Miriam’s Kitchen employee who helped coordinate the vigil, said the organizers obtained the 41 names by asking service providers, Street Sense vendors and others. The number of homeless people who died in the District in 2015 is probably higher.
The list includes men and women, black and white. Some died in hospitals, some in newly attained housing, some on the street.
Before the vigil, a few of their deaths were marked by the broader community — such as those of Mark “Bear” Parker, who was active in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Joel Johnson Jr., who was fatally stabbed at a church.
But the vast majority were not. And one person who died was never identified at all, the loneliest name on a list of loneliness.
John Doe died in the District of Columbia in 2015.
The 41 people remembered at Thursday’s vigil were: Albert Jones, Allen Taylor, Andre Ousley, Brian Washington, Charlie “Microphone” Whitaker, David Becker, David Holt, Diante Mcleod, Dwight Banks, Floyd Stevens, Gwendolyn Williams, Iggy, James Jones, Joe Simpson, Joel Johnson Jr., John Doe, John Haley, Mark “Bear” Parker, Melvin Whitehead, Michelle Dancy, Morris Smith, Muriel Jackson, Nathan Hunt, Nyles Smith, Paul Marshall, Paul Richardson, Peter Lynn, Ralph Johnson, Ricardo Coard, Richard Stewart, Rodney Lloyd, Sheikh Zayed Sultan Aal-Nahyan, Shirley Funderburk, Stephen Turner, Terry Goldman, Thomas Smith, Timothy McClary, Trisha Wilson, Tyrone Williams, William Vaughn and Willie Whitley.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a nurse practitioner who treats homeless patients. She is Courtney Pladsen. Also, the name of Stephen Turner was misspelled because of information incorrectly provided to the Post.