Dec. 21 was the darkest day of 2019. In Nashville, the sun set at 4:36 p.m. and did not rise again until 6:54 a.m. Although this night is technically the longest nightof the year, to our neighbors who live on the streets, all of the nights can feel long. This is why Dec. 21 was chosen as National Homeless Persons Memorial Day.
On this day, Nashvillians gathered at Riverfront Park to honor the 100 people experiencing homelessness who died this past year.
Father Charles Strobel, founder of Room In The Inn, an organization that organizes shelter for and offers educational services to those living on the streets, and homeless advocate Howard Allen both spoke about Tara Cole. In 2006, Tara was sleeping near the Cumberland river when two men rolled her into the river. She died and her body was not recovered for 12 days.
The ceremony on Dec. 21 was positioned around a bench bearing her name, which serves as a memorial for all those who died while experiencing homelessness.
Allen, who is unhoused himself, called on city government officials to take the voice of people experiencing homelessness into account and include affordable housing as Nashville continues to develop.
“The only way you’re going to get that correct formula is to talk to people like me,” Allen said. “The most wealthy pieces of land, in any city, in any state, is a cemetery. Because that’s where dreams were fulfilled and some weren’t … I get tired of coming here every year and doing the same thing.”
Vice Mayor Jim Shulman said the group in attendance of the memorial are some of the city’s moral compasses.
“As part of the metropolitan government, people are supposed to matter to the government,” Shulman says. “The most important thing that should matter to the government are the people that live here. I’ll tell you as a member of government that we don’t always get that right. On a day that we’re here to remember people that passed, I think it’s important to reflect and remember and to do what Howard Allen just said, to push more.”
A new tradition was introduced in the reading of the names. Lindsey Krinks, co-founder of Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach and education organization led the crowd in saying “presente” after each name. It’s a tradition in Latin American social justice gatherings, symbolizing that the person being remembered is still present.
“In many traditions, we believe that the dead are not just gone when they pass. We believe that they are still here, guiding us, and that we can call on their spirits,” Krinks says. “The people that we’ve lost in the struggle for housing, for healthcare, are not lost. They are not gone. They are still here with us, charging our present and fuelling our future work.”
Of the people who died in Nashville this year, the average age was 52, which is in line with the national average life expectancy for someone experiencing homelessness. The average age of a housed person is 78 years old in the United States.
Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, who also spoke at Nashville’s ceremony, says the number of homeless deaths has gone up universally since 2016. He attributed this to two things: the opioid epidemic and the increasing number of people who are unsheltered, making them more susceptible to the elements and violence.
For the last three years the number of homeless deaths have been 87 in 2016, 118 in 2017 and 127 in 2018.
Making it official in 2020
Open Table Nashville crowdsourced from local homeless service providers some medical partners to make the list as exhaustive as possible, but there are still John and Jane Doe’s and many deaths with causes unknown. In 2020 NHCHC’s mortality work group will share a toolkit to share best practices on how city governments can start collecting data on homeless mortality. Some city governments are required to keep count of how many people died while experiencing homelessness. Most aren’t. NHCHC hopes to make Nashville one of those cities.
“It’s really important. One, you know how many people die. But you also know the scope of the problem and you know why people die, so they can do interventions,” Watts says.
They look to publish some research on what interventions have been successful in other cities.
“We want to just raise people’s awareness of the issue,” Watts says. “People may realize how unfortunate it is that someone is experiencing homelessness, but they may not realize that it is deadly. And we really want people to understand that so that can be more of an emphasis to solve the problem.”
The flipside of the darkest day of the year is that each day after is a little bit lighter. Those in attendance at Nashville’s Homeless Memorial Day observation hope to make that true for those experiencing homelessness.
The year ahead
As National Healthcare for the Homeless Council pushes to have Metro record homeless deaths so the scope of the problem can be fully identified, Watts says he hopes to see collaboration between the city and nonprofit service providers, and between cities around the country in the year ahead.
“I’ve heard public officials saying, this is the city’s responsibility and the city’s fault. That was refreshing,” says Watts, who moved to Nashville from the greater New York City area in 2017. “Actions will really prove that out, but there seemed to be an acknowledgement that the city had an important role and even a responsibility to care for our neighbors without homes.”
“The main thing is, we need affordable housing,” he says.
It’s always better health-wise for someone to be inside than outside, so in addition, we need to find out what keeps a person out of shelters and address that, Watts added.
“I think Nashville is trying harder than some cities do, but there’s just so much more that needs to be done,” Watts says.
In response to the opioid crisis, other cities have moved to a harm-reduction model with things like needle exchanges. They’re also making Naloxone, medications that can reverse an opioid overdose, easily available.
“This is a human tragedy but the most important thing is that it is entirely preventable,” Watts says. “Nobody needs to die because they don’t have a home in the richest country on earth. It’s a matter of making the resources available. We have them. It’s not a matter of ‘we can’t afford to do it.’ If we care about our neighbors then we take the attitude, ‘we can’t afford not to do this in order to save lives.’”
Concern for those living on the streets swells in December with the opening of additional shelters, end-of-year giving, and expressions of holiday season-fueled goodwill. Service providers need support year-round. Here are some ways to care for our neighbors without homes in 2020.