‘These Are Unnecessary Deaths’: Advocates Mourn More Than 70 People Who Died Homeless In D.C. This Year

By Sarah Y. Kim

Dozens of people marched to Freedom Plaza Tuesday night, chanting “housing is a human right,” carrying candles and lanterns in remembrance of those who died homeless in D.C. this year.

At the head of the procession, six marchers carried an empty casket.

Each year, D.C. housing advocates, including people with lived experience of homelessness, march through the cold to honor those who died without a home. Each year, they hope they will not have to march again. The Annual Homeless Memorial Vigil, organized by the People for Fairness Coalition, is in its 10th year.

Speaking at Luther Place Memorial Church before the march, Donald Whitehead of the National Coalition for the Homeless said most of those who pass away while homeless do not get proper funerals. The local vigil aligns with National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, formalized by advocates in 1990.

“There’s no headstone. There are no accolades,” he says. “Because they were forced into homelessness, it is up to us…to say one last time: we’re glad you were here.”

Attendees received a list of people who died while homeless. According to the list, at least 70 people died this year. Their ages ranged from 30 to 79. Many of them were seniors, seven in their 70s. Most of them were listed with initials to protect their identities, and two were listed as ‘Name and age unknown,’ identified only by the locations of their death — outside, in Kalorama Park and Scott Circle.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office often gives a higher death toll than advocates, and did so again this year. According to the office, at least 77 people have died while homeless in 2022 so far. That data does not include deaths after September. Most of the deaths occurred in the first three months. Last year, the office gave a death toll of 138.

“These are unnecessary deaths,” Whitehead said. “Most of the deaths are preventable, and would not have happened in a safe, decent, affordable home.”

Most of the deaths in both 2021 and 2022 were due to “accidents,” which include hypothermia, intoxication, and blunt injury from traffic or a fall. Of the “natural” deaths, cardiovascular disease was the most common cause. This year, four died of homicide. Last year, two died of suicide.

Of the 70 people mourned at this year’s vigil, 84% were Black, according to Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for advocacy and policy at Miriam’s Kitchen.

“As a city, we put Black Lives Matter on the sidewalk, but do not do enough to ensure that Black lives are not dying on the sidewalk,” Rabinowitz said in a speech at the service.

Also jarring, he said, is that 60% of those who died had been matched to housing vouchers but died before they were able to move into homes. For the 2022 fiscal year, D.C. funded 2,400 new housing vouchers, but getting rehoused through vouchers can take months. Rabinowitz says that as of November, only 12% of locally-funded vouchers have gotten people rehoused.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rabinowitz told DCist/WAMU, the government acted quickly to protect unhoused people, getting them out of crowded shelters where they would be vulnerable to infection and funding rental assistance. But he feels the District no longer acts with the same sense of urgency.

“Three years later, all of that goodwill and all of that charitable compassion is gone,” Rabinowitz said. “We’ve gone back to a world where we have stopped caring about our neighbors.”

The solutions, he said, include increased investments from Mayor Muriel Bowser, more robust oversight from the D.C. Council over the housing authority, and an end to the “constant eviction and destruction of tent communities.”

As remarks at the church came to a close, Andrew Anderson, outreach director of the People for Fairness Coalition, gave a speech.

“I know the hard feeling of the concrete during the cold. I know the feeling of shivers. I know the feeling of not having a warm blanket. Might have a blanket, but it ain’t warm,” he said, reflecting on his own past experience with homelessness. “I don’t want to experience that again.”

Anderson said there might be limitations to what he can do for unhoused people, but that he and others advocates can still help.

“Some people have given up hope,” he said. “If you’re sitting here, right now, if you’ve experienced homelessness in the present moment or in the past, don’t give up. Please don’t give up.”

Advocates also gathered for a noon interfaith memorial service Wednesday.

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