Through history and across cultures, the winter solstice has been marked by festivals, celebrations, and observations, with an eye for the warmer weather and longer days soon to come. However, for people experiencing homelessness, their allies, and those who serve them, this time of year is important for an entirely different reason.
On the 21st of this month, we remember the many people in this country who died while experiencing homelessness with National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
Origins of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day
In the 1980s, when the mounting visibility of homelessness began to penetrate the national consciousness, homelessness advocates in Atlanta began an annual December march on behalf of those killed by the policies that produce and ignore homelessness. By the 90s, Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day had become a national day of commemoration, with the goal of shifting public awareness to the criminalization, bias, injustice, and general mistreatment suffered by those experiencing homelessness. Now, decades later, many of the very same issues that sparked this day of remembrance are just as prevalent.
When Being Unsheltered Becomes Deadly
In addition to being a cross-culturally recognized period of celebration, this time of year was also chosen because, as the coldest and darkest part of the year, it is the time when unsheltered homeless people are at the highest physical risk. On its own, homelessness is known to hasten the effects of physical aging on the body: continued stress, trauma, and uncertain living conditions exacerbates this. Exposure to the elements (including, in many cases, being forced to live and sleep outside in below-freezing temperatures and on hard surfaces like benches and sidewalks) makes people especially susceptible. In many cases, people die while homeless of entirely treatable conditions. Without access to basic needs like food, shelter, and health care — and with no way to access critical support services — many succumb to the physical pressures of homelessness and austere environments.
It’s difficult to know with certainty how many people are killed by homelessness each year. In 2020, at least 180 people died homeless in D.C. alone. What we do know is that homelessness drops one’s average life expectancy to 50 years of age, down from a non-homeless average of about 78 years. Homeless people are more likely than others to experience injury and interpersonal violence, and some estimates place annual homelessness deaths at upwards of 13,000 people.
We also know that while the sum total impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout on people who are homeless isn’t yet fully understood, many homeless people were especially vulnerable to the virus. Without sufficient access to health care and other services, people experiencing homelessness likely experienced heightened fatalities from the ongoing pandemic.
Homelessness is a Solvable Problem
Lastly, we know what works. Homelessness can be solved for good by making sure housing and services are accessible to every single person who needs them. While these steps may be easier said than done, the Alliance is staunch and unwavering in its commitment to making this goal a reality.
This Homeless Persons Memorial Day, we encourage you to connect with your community in remembering and honoring those who died due to their housing status. We hope you’ll take the time this season to consider them, and the many systemic failures leading to their loss.
Critically, though, we know that the best and most meaningful way to honor our lost colleagues, friends, and neighbors is to fight to make sure that not one more person is lost to homelessness.