Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day: An Opportunity to Honor Those Who Passed—and to Take Action

December 16, 2021
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No life should be lived or lost in homelessness. More than 15,600 people died while experiencing homelessness last year, and sadly, this is likely a vast undercount.

On the winter solstice and longest night of the year, communities across the country have gathered for decades to remember these lives lost. In 2020, many memorials were virtual or cancelled due to the pandemic. This year, we encourage communities to come together once again.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) acknowledges that the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) have recognized Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day (December 21) for the last 30 years to mourn those who have died and to renew our commitment to a world where housing should be a right—not a privilege.

We know that homelessness is deadly—and preventable. We also know that a disproportionate number of those who experience it are people of color, people who suffer from mental health and substance use disorders, people who are victims of violence, and people involved in the criminal justice system that have been punished for activities that are necessary for their survival.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Now is the time to act. 

Get better data. To address a problem, we need to know its full scope. Our homeless friends, family members, and neighbors died from COVID-19, substance use, chronic illness, violence, and the collective impact of trauma. However, incomplete data and siloed systems make it difficult to know exactly how many people lose their lives while experiencing homelessness. To improve policies and interventions, we encourage communities to utilize the Homeless Mortality Data Toolkit to track, analyze, and publish reports on all homeless deaths.

Plan for winter weather. Implement winter shelter plans that not only mitigate the spread of COVID but include effective strategies for getting people inside and out of the cold.

Mitigate the spread and impact of COVID. People experiencing homelessness die from infectious diseases like COVID—as well as most chronic health conditions and substance use—at higher rates than their housed counterparts. To address this tragic inequity, communities should continue to implement or immediately implement CDC-informed guidance to promote vaccines, strengthen routine testing, use non-congregate shelters, follow mitigation protocols, and rehouse as many people as possible. Non-congregate shelters, such as converted hotels, have been shown to reduce incidences of COVID-19 and increase access to housing.

Invest in rehousing and affordable housing. We must ensure Housing First practices are implemented as standards of care. But if we don’t expand the supply of affordable housing, we’re never going to end homelessness. The American Rescue Plan offers at least two ways to fund the development and preservation of affordable housing, especially for the lowest-income renters: the HOME Investment Partnerships (HOME-ARP) program and the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. Communities can also declare homelessness a state of emergency to make more resources available for housing and services. Adapting the same level of urgency to homelessness that’s been used to respond to COVID can help end homelessness as we know it.

Invest in service delivery. The pandemic has cut off people experiencing homelessness from essential services like health care (including substance use treatment) and case management. Meanwhile, encampment closures (sweeps)—which are ticking up again—disrupt care, fracture communities, and subject people to more trauma. Communities should stop implementing unproven, ineffective measures against people without a home—most commonly through bans on camping. Experiencing homelessness doesn’t make someone a criminal. Instead, they should invest in programs and services that we know improve outcomes, such as street medicine, medical respite, and permanent supportive housing. By expanding and improving Medicaid and Medicare, fully funding health centers, and implementing harm reduction programs, state and local governments could see a drastic improvement in the health of their homeless population and could reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.

Always remember: There’s still hope. In the three decades since the first Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, concepts like Housing First and harm reduction have evolved from pilot projects to effective, evidence-based standards of care. That’s partially because people with lived experience are increasingly being included in policy conversations and decisions. And now, the American Rescue Plan offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to significantly reduce homelessness in some communities and end it in others. Many places are using the billions of dollars in new funding to convert hotels and motels into permanent housing, to invest in tailored services, and to provide rental assistance for people at risk of homelessness.

We can change, but if we don’t, next year and the year after that, we’ll be back here with an even longer list of names. Sign up for your local Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day events, and let us know they’re happening.

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