IMPACT
12/21/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Homeless Persons Memorial Day Honors Dignity, Worth Of People Without Shelter Whom We've Lost

Laurent Hamels via Getty Images

Sunday marks National Homeless Person's Memorial Day, commemorated on the longest night of the year.

The event and awareness day honors the thousands of homeless people who have died and serves as a reminder of the innumerable hardships and risks people living without shelter face.

Advocates hope that the designated memorial day will encourage health care providers, community organizations, and social service agencies to combine forces in order to more effectively address the needs of this population.

At the same time though, supporters see declaring the names of the dead of equal importance, to remind society of their dignity and worth.

While homelessness is on the decline in the U.S., the more than 578,000 homeless people living without permanent shelter face critical challenges. Homeless individuals face violent attacks and, compared to the general population, are at greater risk for chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse, according to the CDC.

Last year, homeless people experienced a 23 percent surge in targeted attacks compared to the number of assaults in 2012, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH).

One of the drivers of these assaults, experts say, is the criminalization of homelessness.

"Cities continue to crack down on the homeless population by enforcing laws and creating a hostile attitude toward the homeless population," Michael Stoops, NCH director of community organizing, told The Huffington Post in March when the preliminary figures were released.

Now that winter has set in, homeless people are also at a heightened risk of developing hypothermia and freezing to death.

Though hypothermia can set in anywhere between 32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, many emergency shelters don’t open their doors until well after the thermometer drops to that point, a NCH survey released in February found.

Winter shelters in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, don’t open until the thermometer plummets to 20 degrees.

But people aren't freezing to death just in characteristically frigid places.

In one week last winter, seven homeless people died on the streets in California from possible hypothermia, according to ABC7.

One of those casualties was Joe White, 50, who didn’t want to burden his mother and couldn’t get a spot at a shelter, ABC7 reported.

After waiting for months, the Hayward, California man finally climbed to the second spot on a list for permanent housing.

But he was found dead, likely from hypothermia, before he could get his chance to move indoors.

Several hundred people commemorated their own local version of Homeless Persons Memorial Day on Thursday night in Philadelphia to remember 149 people who were homeless or formerly homeless and died in the last year, Philly.com reported.

“[When movie stars die, their passing is] ‘mourned by millions,’ The Rev. Domenic Rossi said, according to Philly.com. “[As for the homeless], ‘God remembers them, and in God's name, so do we.’”

Find out more about Homeless Person's Memorial Day and what you can do here.

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