A crowd of hundreds gathered in a Minneapolis church Thursday night and mourned the deaths of those who struggled with homelessness this year.
Attendees said the annual memorial service provided a stark reminder of the state's failure to end homelessness. This year, organizers counted 126 people who died either while homeless or shortly after finding housing -- seven more than the year before.
The number of deaths in Duluth nearly doubled, and the average age of death dropped from 48 to 44 years.
"People used to be outraged at the thought of someone dying on the street," said Julie Manworren, the executive director of Simpson Housing Services, the nonprofit that coordinates the memorial. "We've lost that."
Many of those who died had struggled for years with chronic health problems like diabetes and mental illness, organizers said, and were not recently homeless due to the economic downturn. But cuts to the state's health care program for the poor, and a shortage of affordable housing, have left many people sick and in the streets.
Mourners expressed concern Thursday that the state's looming $6.2 billion budget deficit could mean further cuts to basic services -- and more deaths.
The evening began with a silent march from the Hennepin County Government Center to Simpson United Methodist Church. At the church, volunteers read the names of the dead and lit candles in their memory.
Outreach worker John Petroskas works with hospitals, medical examiners, and social service agencies to collect the names of those who died.
"We do it to bring dignity to people who sought it during their lives," he told the crowd. "We do it to hold them close once again."
Organizers said the list represents only a portion of the total deaths, as the numbers are difficult to track. During the memorial service, several people stood up to add more names to the list.
Deb Holman, a street outreach worker in Duluth, contributed 22 names this year. Three of them came from one family -- a son, a mother, and a stepfather. The family had been staying with a relative, but the relative died, and they had no place to go. The son, who was 38, died of liver failure, the mother of alcoholism, and the stepfather of various untreated medical problems.
"It was a really rough year for that family," Holman said. "It's been a rough year for a lot of people."
“People used to be outraged at the thought of someone dying on the street. We've lost that.”Julie Manworren, Simpson Housing Services
Holman said she doesn't know what caused the sudden increase in homeless deaths in Duluth. More families are staying at homeless shelters in the city, she said, but most of those who died this year were single adults.
In the past year, she has met with about 350 people living in tents in the woods, in cars parked outside of Wal-Mart, on heating vents in the street, and in shelters. She said homeless people in Duluth look out for one another to prevent hypothermia.
"These folks are really resilient," she said. "They have nothing, and yet they share and help each other."
Many of those who died suffered from several health problems and had difficulty accessing health care on a regular basis, she said.
Holman said people who are homeless and diabetic are among those most at risk of having their health spiral downward. She gave the example of a homeless man in Duluth who recently had to have his toes amputated because he wasn't able to get proper care for his diabetes.
If Duluth had more affordable housing and better access to medical care, she said, fewer people would see their lives deteriorate to the point that they die on the streets.
"It's a solvable problem, if we want to solve it," she said.
Jesse Wiley said he sometimes worries that people have given up trying to end homelessness. He started attending the memorial seven years ago, shortly after he moved out of a tent in downtown St. Paul and into a shelter. He said the worst thing about being homeless was the feeling that no one cared.
"It was easy to get used to living in a shelter, and it was even easy to get used to tenting outside," Wiley, 50, said. "But it was the separation from society that was really tough for me. I was lonely."
A few months ago, he moved into a rental home. He works two part-time jobs, and wants to earn enough money to support himself and his 12-year-old daughter, who currently lives in foster care.
Wiley said he knows what happens when a person doesn't get help. When he was young, his father was abusive, left the family, and lived on the streets. Wiley was eventually placed in foster care, and his dad died when he was 14.
Wiley said he's lucky he was able to access subsidized housing and other services. Without it, he said, he might've ended up like his father.
"I'm just so grateful for what I have now," he said, as he made his way into the memorial service. "In a way, I feel like it's a road to redemption for both me and my father. It's a chance for me to get it right for both of us. I want people to know it's possible."