Nancy (not her real name) was 54 years old when she died of cancer. I first met Nancy at an overnight homeless shelter. She was bubbly and happy-go-lucky, and her bright personality stood out despite her dire circumstances. Nancy spent the previous four years living on the streets after losing her job as an accountant. Shortly after I met Nancy, she was offered permanent housing through a Housing First program.
This housing opportunity could not have come soon enough. Shortly after becoming housed, Nancy learned that she had terminal cancer. Fortunately, Nancy was housed when she died, but the years on the streets had a significant impact on her health and her ability to seek the treatment that she needed to diagnose and treat her illness. Nancy’s story is not unique; however, Nancy was fortunate to die in the comfort of her own home with her friends around her. Many people experiencing homelessness are not as fortunate and die on the streets.
A Day for Remembrance
It is for this reason that 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 on or around December 21 to remember those individuals in our communities who have died homeless in the past year. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day events have been held every year around the first day of winter and the longest night of year since 1990.
Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day raises awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and serves to stand as a public memorial in recognition of friends and neighbors who have died on the streets. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides toolkits that include an organizing manual, posters, and fact sheet to help groups organize events every year. The organization’s publication, The Hard, Cold Facts About the Deaths of Homeless People — 2006, explains the following:
- Homelessness dramatically elevates one’s risk of illness, injury, and death.
- The average age of death of a person experiencing homelessness is about fifty years, the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900.
- People experiencing homelessness suffer the same illnesses experienced by people with homes, but at rates three to six times higher.
- People experiencing homelessness die on the streets from exposure to the cold.
- People experiencing homelessness die on the streets from unprovoked violence, also known as hate crimes.
- Poor access to quality health care reduces the possibility of recovery from illnesses and injuries.
Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is an opportunity to bring attention to an everyday tragedy. It stands as a testament to the vital importance that housing plays to the health, well-being, and safety of all people. We hope you can join our friends at the State Theatre for A Very Holiday Happy Hour in a moment of reflection and hope; and an observance of this somber occasion. Details of the event can be found here.