For nearly three decades, advocates for people experiencing homelessness nationwide have taken one day out of the year to remember those who have passed due to the trauma of homelessness. Symbolically commemorated on December 21st, the winter solstice and longest night of the year, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day serves as a reminder of the daily violence experienced by those who are without permanent housing.
Every year, we mourn those we have lost and bemoan persistent homelessness that does not seem to be getting better. We have lost so many of our neighbors due to violence perpetrated by those who see people experiencing homelessness as less than human, or the structural violence that exacerbates easily preventable disease or shortens life expectancy by 20-30 years. I remember my fellow AmeriCorps volunteer and colleague Jesse, whose heart gave out after only a handful of years off the streets. I remember Cliff, the talented photographer and vegetarian, conscripted to eating American cheese sandwiches in the shelter, even as his health failed due to cancer. These, and so many others, were our friends, our colleagues, our family members, who became victims of a lack of affordable housing.
The fact remains that a lack of housing is unhealthy, traumatizing and significantly shortens an individual’s life expectancy. People who experience homelessness have an average life expectancy of around 50 years of age, almost 20 years lower than housed populations. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that people experiencing homelessness are at a greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse.
They are also more susceptible to violence once experiencing homelessness, a fact confirmed by over 20 years of reports on bias-motivated crimes against people experiencing homelessness showing 1,769 reported acts of violence against people experiencing homelessness, 476 of which were lethal.
In 2017, there were 22 cities that reported the number of people experience homelessness who lost their lives without a place to call home. Out of those cities that reported, 2,525 homeless community members passed away. Consulting reports about deaths of people experiencing homelessness in 2016, we estimate that at least 13,000 people pass away each year while without housing.
Homelessness is the most extreme expression of structural housing poverty. This form of extreme poverty hasn’t always existed at the levels we see today, and doesn’t have to be a permanent state in all of our communities. We need to invest in our shared humanity through investment in publicly affordable housing. We need to build healthier and more compassionate communities, that ensure all residents’ basic human needs are met. May this Memorial Day be a reminder to all of us that working together, we can build our housing infrastructure, and reinforce our safety net of food, cash, medical and housing assistance, so we don’t lose another brother and sister to the streets.
We invite all of you to register your Memorial Day events at https://nationalhomeless.org. If you are not able to host your own event, please participate in a nearby event to memorialize our fallen community members that passed away without the dignity to have a place to call home. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is co-sponsored by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and the National Coalition for the Homeless.