Homeless people who died on US streets are increasingly remembered at winter solstice gatherings

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Documentary photographer Eric Elmore displays one of his images of Roosevelt White III, Tuesday, Dec 19, 2023, in Phoenix at the site of a fire where Roosevelt lived in his tent. Elmore documented Phoenix's homeless people in addition to Roosevelt, who was 36 when he died of a stroke in September after falling ill in the Phoenix homeless encampment known as "The Zone". Roosevelt is among thousands of homeless people who died this year and are being remembered at winter solstice events for Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX – With his gap-tooth smile, hip-hop routines and volunteer work for a food charity, Roosevelt White III was well known in the downtown Phoenix tent city known as “The Zone.”

But like many homeless people, White suffered from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. He died unexpectedly one sweltering September day at age 36.

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Thousands of people like White who died this year without a permanent home are being memorialized on Thursday in communities from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Riverside, California. Established in 1990, the increasingly popular Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is observed with prayers, candles, moments of silence and the reading of names on Dec. 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

A national gathering called “One Life, Too Many. Another Year, Too Long” is planned Thursday afternoon in Washington, with a Zoom call so people can follow from afar.

Other gatherings will be in Cincinnati, Ohio; Wilmington, Delaware; and San Diego. A ceremony in Phoenix will honor 758 homeless people confirmed to have died so far this year in Maricopa County, the most populous in Arizona and home to Phoenix, the state's largest city.

That's already a record. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner investigated 732 deaths of homeless people in 2022, representing a 42% jump in deaths from 2021.

"Without sufficient housing and services, people will continue to die on the streets,” said Lisa Glow, CEO at Central Arizona Shelter Services, which operates the state’s largest emergency shelter, a 600-bed facility in Phoenix.

DeBorah Gilbert White, the public education director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said learning about those who died can shatter stereotypes. At one event several years ago, she learned of a 3-year-old homeless girl who died in the nation's capital.

White said that as the population grows older, more people are dying in their 60s. She noted that many with chronic conditions like diabetes don't have the necessary conditions, such as refrigeration for insulin, to care for their health.

Overall, homelessness is surging. The recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that roughly 653,100 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness. That's a 12% overall increase over the previous year and the highest since reporting began in 2007.

“A lot of people living in encampments are uninsured and without access to medical treatment for a variety of illnesses that are exacerbated by living unsheltered,” said Etel Haxhiaj, a spokesperson for the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council.

The council supports the remembrance events to push for better tracking of the deaths.

Maricopa County is among few U.S. jurisdictions engaged in such tracking.

Drug and alcohol abuse figured into many deaths and was often the main cause. While a stroke killed White, methamphetamine intoxication contributed to his death, according to the medical examiner. Cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks, followed by traffic injuries, are also common ways that homeless people die.

Many homeless people are estranged from family, which means their deaths can pass virtually unnoticed. But when White died, at least 60 people, including family members from Arizona and Oklahoma, showed up for his funeral. The food was catered by Feed Phoenix, the nonprofit organization he volunteered with.

Among the mourners was Phoenix documentary photographer Eric Elmore, who created numerous black and white portraits of White over a year. The downtown encampment where White lived once housed hundreds of people in tents, but it has since been cleared out under a court order.

“He had this kind of energy that would just draw you in,” Elmore said of White. “He had a huge personality.”

Megan Kepler, who volunteered with White, remembered him on Wednesday as “a man who was full of kindness and joy.”

“Although he had many struggles, he always had a smile on his face and a positive attitude. He stayed hopeful in the face of difficulties,” said Kepler. “We miss our friend dearly, and hope that others can see that he was not just a number, but instead a valued and loved human being.”

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