Vigil, march highlight Minnesota’s homeless struggles as winter begins

people marching hold signs honoring people who died while homeless
Marchers moved quietly through Minneapolis Thursday, holding up signs with the names and ages of people who died this year in Minnesota after struggling with homelessness.
Evan Frost for Simpson Housing Services

Hundreds of Minnesotans died this past year after having lived in tent encampments, in shelters or outside on the streets. Some were in their 20s and 30s, others decades older. Some were children. Most were identified by name, and others marked only as “unknown man” or “infant.” Many struggled with drug addiction, overdose and COVID-19. Their average age before dying was just 41.

Mourners honored them Thursday, marching quietly through Minneapolis, part of a vigil held in cities across the country on or near Dec. 21, the longest night of the year and the beginning of winter.

Housing advocates in Minnesota say there aren’t enough resources across the state to provide shelter for everyone who needs it. This year’s march was part of the 37th Annual Homeless Memorial, and the needs remain as great as ever.

“In some parts of the state, people have to drive 100 miles to find a shelter bed. And for someone who may be lacking transportation, that could be an insurmountable challenge,” said Rhonda Otteson, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

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“Really effectively housing is health care, in terms of helping people to be more stable,'' said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis. “If we have a safe place to lay our heads at night, you know, our health improves.”

Pandemic isolation has been devastating, especially for those struggling with substance use disorders who find themselves without any community when the city breaks up tent encampments, said Robert Hofmann, who manages Simpson’s shelter program. The program has been operating shelter services around-the-clock throughout the pandemic.

On Thursday, marchers held signs with peoples’ names written on them, drawing from a list of hundreds of homeless and formerly homeless people: “Autumn, 29, Minneapolis,” “Sue, 31, St. Paul,” “Rachel, 35, Stillwater,” and “Baby Boy, Hennepin County.”

Attendees wore masks while marching together. Names of the dead were read aloud at a closed memorial service that evening at Plymouth Congregational Church with 325 candles lighted.

Most were for people who died homeless or were formerly homeless. Most died this year; 60 died in 2020 but were identified too late to be remembered at last year’s service.

Hofmann remembered one person in particular who died: Jody “Joe” Clason, 58, of Minneapolis. He was a veteran who used to stay near their shelter, “flying a sign” — asking passersby for spare change — at First Avenue and Lake Street. He had only recently found housing.

Hofmann often offers people cigarettes when he greets them outside, but Clason didn’t smoke. Instead, he asked Hofmann for Pringles potato chips. After that, Hofmann kept an extra can of Pringles in his car for Clason.

“This was a guy who was really resourceful,” Hofmann said, “who survived on his own for a long time, but who knew to ask for help, when he needed to.”