Signs for the homeless memorial vigil by the author.

On December 20, advocates, faith leaders, and community members gathered for the annual Homeless Memorial Vigil to remember the 54 people who died without the dignity of a home in DC in 2018 thus far. Those who died ranged in age from 25 to 87, with the median age being 57. The average life expectancy in DC is 76.8, illustrating the toll that DC’s lack of universal housing takes on the lowest-income members of our community.

Not only did 54 people die on DC’s streets, an additional 83 members of the homeless community died in 2018 after moving into housing, some from health conditions that likely would have been diagnosed and treated earlier had they had access to housing and health care.

People who died in DC without a home in 2018 by the author.

Advocates say officials are not doing enough to end homelessness

Since 2014, 191 people experiencing homelessness have died in DC, according to Jesse Rabinowitz, the Advocacy and Campaign Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen and the Way Home Campaign, a coalition of 96 organizations and businesses working to end homelessness in DC.

At the vigil, advocates emphasized that while the District has invested more than $54 million to fund more than 2,500 units of permanent housing, funded the creation of a new Downtown Services Center, and invested $40 million for shelter redevelopment at 801 East at St. Elizabeth’s, DC is still not on track to meet its plan to end homelessness by 2020 and there is much more that needs to be done.

Advocates say that the DC Council and mayor need to invest $35.5 million in the budget for FY 2020 for the Permanent Supportive Housing and Targeted Affordable Housing programs, in order to house 1,140 individuals and 177 families. However, earlier this month, the DC Council passed legislation that diverted $20 million from the collection of online sales tax that in 2013 was intended for homelessness services to tax breaks for commercial properties.

Another legislative priority for the Way Home Campaign is to pass the Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Act, which was introduced in July 2017 with the support of seven of the DC Council’s 13 members. This bill would grant individuals experiencing homelessness protected status under the DC Human Rights Act, but died in the Judiciary Committee without a hearing. Advocates are pushing for the bill to be re-introduced and passed in the next Council session that begins in 2019.

Ken Martin, an advocate with the People for Fairness Coalition, pointed out that in order to save lives, there must also be a focus on providing services for people after they move into housing. “People are dying in wonderful new housing because there are not enough transitional services,” he said. He himself nearly died after being moved into housing last year, and after more than a year and a half in housing, he has yet to speak to his housing navigator.

Advocates say we all have a role to play in ending homelessness

One of the recurring themes of the vigil is that everyone can take action to end homelessness.

The simplest task is to save the shelter hotline, (202) 399-7093, in your phone, so that when the temperature drops below freezing, you can call to help individuals on the street access blankets or shelter (alternatively, you can dial 311). The number also works in the summer, when the DC government activates the hyperthermia alert when the temperature reaches above 95 degrees. If you're in Maryland, you can call state numbers at 888-731-0999 or 301-864-7095. If you're in Northern Virginia, consult this list.

With the DC Council gearing up to pass the FY 2020 budget this spring, advocates will be calling on residents to contact their councilmembers and the mayor to encourage them to fund needed homelessness service programs.

Eve Zhurbinskiy is a reproductive justice advocate, dog person, and a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Foggy Bottom, having served from 2015 to 2017. She recently graduated from GW and lives in Dupont Circle.