Every morning at 6:45 a.m. I wake up, and like many of you, I check the emails that have come in throughout the evening or early morning. However, unlike most of you, the first email I read every day is about our neighbors who passed away. The returned results are articles with titles such as “48-year-old homeless person found dead in wooded area.” These articles almost never use person-first language as we at THN would advocate. Instead of “people experiencing homelessness,” the descriptor “homeless person” is used. Admittedly, that’s the way most in our communities describe people experiencing homelessness. To be clear, however, these people happened to be homeless when they passed away. These are people like your favorite aunt, your best friend, and that nephew whom you love to see over the holidays each year and comment on how much he has grown. The only difference is that they were unhoused.
Reading these articles the first thing each day may seem like a horrible way to start the day. Honestly, it isn’t great, but it’s necessary. Because of the work we do at THN and the mission of our agency, we must make a note of those that died while on the streets, in camps, or in shelters. We cannot forget them because others may. Their deaths deserve our attention. As service providers and advocates, we must harness the grief we feel when reading these reports and use them to strengthen our resolve as we all prepare for another year working with Texas communities to make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring. This is important throughout the year, but there is a single day dedicated to our memorial of those experiencing homeless that we lost in the past year, and it’s coming up in less than a week.
Today, December 21, is National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. It is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night. Each year, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board, and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council encourage communities to host public events to remember individuals who have died in the past year while experiencing homelessness.
I’m sure the fact that this day of memorial happens on the date of the most prolonged period of darkness is something you noted if you didn’t know of this memorial before. I assume that this day was chosen to highlight the vulnerability and fear one might feel on the longest night of the year if they aren’t in a warm, safe home, a way to drive home the seriousness of homelessness to those that will never experience it. That may have been the original reason for choosing December 21st as this memorial, but I think this day, the day in which there is the most darkness, may be appropriate on other levels.
Perhaps the extended darkness on this date points at the fact that we don’t do more as a nation, state, or community to end homelessness casts a dark shadow on our communities and values. Even if we aren’t doing it for moral reasons, we could surely do it because housing people, particularly those suffering from chronic homelessness, will save everyone money. Or maybe it’s speaking to the dark truth that while homelessness is often blamed for rises in criminal activity, the opposite is true. The truth, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be victimized than their housed counterparts. Also, we are in the dark about the fact that housing is the most essential healthcare we have. People ages 25-44 experiencing homelessness face an all-cause mortality risk that is 8.9 times higher than the general population. Finally, most of us hide our eyes to the fact that the people we will memorialize on the 21st are not that much different from the majority of us. In a recent survey, over 800K Texans reported that they were not caught up on rent or mortgage and that eviction or foreclosure in the next two months is either very likely or somewhat likely.
Each person is or was at one time someone’s child, sibling, parent, or grandparent. None started their life thinking they may die on the streets while experiencing homelessness. So, on December 21st, please take a few moments to think about the people without the safety of home and those who have passed away in the past year. And if that moves you to help, please reach out to your local homeless service agency or faith community or even your state legislator or congress member and step up for those that lost their lives while experiencing homelessness in 2021. If you need help finding a place to put your energies, reach out to us.
And, for those of you that work in homeless response systems and advocate to better the lives of Texans at-risk or experiencing homelessness, thank you for your dedication, heart, and perseverance. And, please know that you are making lasting differences in the lives of everyone, those unhoused and those housed. Because you are there for those who have fallen and will be ready for those in need in the new year.
You don’t have to work in homeless services to help. You can help by advocating on behalf of the over 27,000 Texans experiencing homelessness. Sign up to receive news and updates. Subscribers to the State and Federal Advocacy Updates receive Information on legislation affecting homelessness programs during the Texas Legislative session and as they are introduced at the federal level.