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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Ninety-one names to help us all remember those living, and dying, on our streets

Amanda Weisen  (Contributed picture/CHAS Health)
Amanda Weisen (Contributed picture/CHAS Health)

Frederick R.

Patricia W.

Randall G.

The names – read aloud solemnly – spool on and on as the video plays.

Peter S.

Cheryl C.

Judith A.

It takes several minutes just to say their names – all the Michaels and Barbaras, the Peters and Jeffs who died this year in Spokane while they were trying to live without a place to live.

The Marks and the Georges. The Patricias and Judiths.

Pippi and Sea Dog and Georgeous George and Old Man Mark.

Ninety-one deaths. Ninety-one lives. Ninety-one names of people who died among us without a place to live.

The annual memorial service for the homeless people who died while living on our streets – those who passed away without obituaries and funeral services, without eulogies or pallbearers – has become a regular part of this season here and in other more than 150 cities across the country. Organized annually by CHAS Health, whose homeless outreach team is a constant source of support for those members of our community, the memorial usually takes place outside the Denny Murphy Clinic.

This year, due to COVID-19 precautions, the memorial became a 17-minute video.

“We do this memorial because we want to recognize the struggle people face in the experience of homelessness,” said Dr. Deb Wiser, chief clinical officer for CHAS Health. “We want to give eyes to the perspective that these are human beings with the right to have a roof over their heads and their basic needs met like everyone else.”

The video includes stories from two homeless people who speak of their own experiences on the Spokane streets during the winter, along with the recitation of the names of those who died over the past year. There is not a lot of detail about the dead, just a first name and last initial in most cases, but it is an effort to try and reckon with the humanity of these people, to try to individualize them, to make a brief space in the world to make note of their passing.

The memorial is held annually on the solstice – the longest night of the year – for a reason: as a recognition of the long, cold nights that many people are experiencing in our community. For yet another winter, our shelter capacity remains insufficient to the task, with people turned away at shelters nightly, and seeking out a bed on sidewalks and under bridges and in camps.

A woman who is now homeless, Amanda Weisen, talks in the video about the various challenges of being without a place to stay in the winter – including the fact that someone had stolen her belonging the day before.

“It’s cold out here,” she said. “I know a lot of people who have died out here – died of the cold, died of old age, died of heroin overdoses. … Some of the girls, they get picked up and you never see them again.”

Homelessness shaves years off the lives of those experiencing it. Studies consistently show a correlation between a lack of housing and shortened lifespan. Wiser says people may underestimate the wide range of difficulties in accessing and maintaining health care treatment that homeless people face – the many ways in which the lack of a stable home in their lives makes it difficult to communicate with health care providers, to maintain and manage prescriptions, or to keep up with a routine to address chronic conditions.

“What I find to be a striking correlation is the risk of death at a young age” with being homeless, Wiser said. “Life expectancy is about 50 for those experiencing chronic homelessness.”

CHAS gathers the list of those who have died from a variety of sources. Its homeless outreach team is in constant contact with the homeless population, and gathers information from them about those who have passed, as well as using death records and other sources of information. In the memorial, they are named by just a first name and last initial, or a nickname, as a way of protecting their privacy but still honoring them as individuals, Wiser said.

There were 91 names recited this year, but “we know we miss some,” she said.

You can watch the memorial at the CHAS web site, Hearing the names read is a sobering experience – and you can see the emotion on the faces of the CHAS workers as they read the names – but it’s one that serves as an important reminder.

These were people. Individuals. Not a group or monolith. Not a political issue or faceless class. They were human beings, with more than their share of suffering.

Human beings – each one of them – with a name.

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