December 21, the longest night of the year, is remembered annually as Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, a time when we remember the people who lost their lives while experiencing homelessness. The night seems particularly poignant this year as we anticipate a very long winter ahead, with an unconstrained deadly virus poised to take many more lives before people will receive vaccinations.
It’s hard not to be angry as we look back on this year and see so many circumstances, attitudes, and decisions that failed to protect endangered people.
The Cost of Congressional Inaction
As I write this, Congress has still not acted to ensure that states, localities, and homeless service programs will have the resources they need to keep people safe over the upcoming months. Resources are critically needed: resources to help people stay housed, resources so parents can feed their children, resources to equip at-risk individuals with personal protective equipment, resources to help those who are unhoused get quickly connected to safety, and resources to help all people experiencing homelessness connect to permanent housing. This inaction directly impacts the health and safety of people who already live with increased risk.
Increased Health Risks
This has been a brutal year for people who experience homelessness, and it is daunting to hear medical experts tell us that the worst is still to come. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, places where people once found respite during the day have closed. Programs that once offered meals have limited how many people they can serve, or suspended serving meals altogether. Shelters have reduced the number of people they can accommodate each night. Support systems – family, friends, caseworkers, faith leaders – may now only be accessible online, adding to the isolation that so often accompanies homelessness.
Due to COVID-19, people experiencing homelessness are forced to navigate so much more on their own, including health, mental health and behavioral health crises. Jobs that would help people escape homelessness are harder to find, and those available may put workers at higher risk of getting sick.
Policies That Fail to Protect
COVID-19 has not been the only assault that people experiencing homelessness encountered this year.
Calls for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have been dismissed by many or responded to with derision, and sometimes with violence. This response was likely not lost on the disproportionate number of Black people who experience homelessness each year who receive ample evidence that their lives don’t seem to matter to the people around them.
HUD withdrew national guidance requiring federally funded homeless service programs to assist people respectfully and in accordance with their gender identity – reinforcing messages already too common in the lives of transgender individuals that they are not welcomed or accepted. Instead, HUD has proposed federal regulations that would hinder equitable progress on low barrier entries to shelter and housing. These rule changes would ultimately impact people who already disproportionately experience homelessness: people of color, and people who are trans or gender nonconforming. These are policy changes, which, if enacted, would unconscionably make it more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to access shelter or obtain housing at a time when access to these resources are critical and potentially life-saving. In other words, these are policies that put lives at risk.
Newspapers are now full of stories of well-to-do neighbors using their resources and privilege to prevent nearby buildings from providing safe accommodation and housing to people experiencing homelessness. Angry messages sent to political leaders argue that “they” don’t belong here.
And, of course, this year, the nation witnessed the horrific loss of life of George Floyd at the hands of police. It was one of many examples that seemed to pierce the nation’s consciousness, laying bare to all the disparate way people of color are policed. For far too many people experiencing homelessness, particularly those living without shelter, their very existence is subject to being viewed as a criminal act that requires policing. Sleeping outside when that is not allowed. Trespassing. Loitering. For those without shelter, a mental health and behavioral health crisis may lead to incarceration rather than assistance. We are not providing the safety and protection that people experiencing homelessness deserve, and this failure puts their lives at risk.
Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day
We don’t know how many people experiencing homelessness lost their lives this year. One person is too many, but we know it was far more than that. December 21 is not a night to honor the large number of lost lives, but rather it is a night to remember individual lives: the lives of people with children, parents, siblings, friends and pets who miss them every day. The lives of people who served in the military, who fled domestic violence, who struggled with chronic health conditions, including mental health and behavioral health conditions. People who struggled to succeed despite embedded structural impediments including structural racism, poor wages, inadequate health and social service supports and a national failure to invest needed resources in affordable housing.
It’s perhaps particularly important this year to also reflect on the lost lives of helpers who work on the frontline every day to make things better: outreach workers, shelter providers, volunteers, and medical workers who – despite the danger to themselves – remained steadfastly committed to the people they served. The helpers, of course, also include those individuals experiencing homelessness who seem to so consistently and generously share what little they have so others can stay safe.
On the night of December 21, we must take time to remember our lost friends and family members. On the days before and the days after, we must commit to doing more together: to work to push Congress to make the needed investments to help people experiencing homelessness transition into permanent housing, along with the supports that will help them thrive and live fully. We need to work together at the local level to push for shelter options that are safe, welcoming and immediately available to all people experiencing homelessness. We need to show up at local meetings that seek to build walls to keep people experiencing homelessness out, and instead show support for housing that will invite people in.
We need to do this with urgency – because homeless persons’ lives matter. They deserve better, and we can do better.