A Closer Look

A monthly in-depth look at issues affecting people experiencing homelessness and the broader Health Care for the Homeless community

‘Pray for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living’

By Barbara DiPietro, PhD, Senior Director of Policy

When Mother Jones — a fierce labor and union organizer — said this in 1902 she was fighting to improve the lives of miners and silk mill workers. Now, more than 120 years later, I borrow her words for our current struggle to end homelessness.

Pray for the Dead…

For decades, the National Consumer Advisory Board (NCAB), the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and the National Coalition for the Homeless have recognized Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year — as Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Intended to honor those who have passed away during the year, Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day events are incredibly important to collectively remember and mourn our family, friends, patients/clients, and community members who experienced the injustice of homelessness. 

“Let us remember those who suffered and died on the streets this year. Remembering they had hopes, dreams, and stories. They were our brothers and sisters in the community. They were not voiceless but a voice without a home. Let us honor their memory on this day.” 

Deidre Young, Chair, NCAB

👉 HPMD Resources: Check out our HPMD Toolkit, which includes an organizing manual and oral histories of 15 people who have died.

“Folks experiencing homelessness are often not acknowledged as members of society or the community, and when we formally gather in memory of someone who had been homeless, it shows those who are living that they are, indeed, valued members of our community.”

Lynea Seiberlich-Wheeler, LCSW; Chair, Clinicians Network Steering Committee

… And Fight Like Hell for the Living

Housing can be the difference between life and death, but housing remains out of reach for many. Health care continues to be inaccessible, wages are deplorably low, disability benefits aren’t sufficient, and many communities have invested in criminalizing homelessness instead of ending it. Hence, there is no shortage of news articles on homeless deaths like these from Anchorage and Maricopa County. Even TIME Magazine wrote about homeless mortality in West Virginia.

However, no one knows how many people experiencing homelessness die each year in the U.S. — the richest country in the history of the world.

Establishing a national estimate of homeless deaths — and the causes of these deaths — is necessary to understand the magnitude of the problem and invest targeted resources to prevent future deaths (ummm…more housing perhaps?). This is a justice issue, an advocacy issue, and a public health issue.

“Without knowing the who, where, when, why, and how people experiencing homelessness are dying, any efforts to prevent illness and promote health cannot truly be evidence-based. Any death among someone experiencing homelessness is the result of intentional, systematic, and structural violence.”  

Ashley Meehan, Lead Coordinator, NHCHC Homeless Mortality Working Group

This is why we’ve made collecting homeless mortality data one of our policy priorities. More communities now collect this type of data and make it available publicly. Examples include:

👉 Homeless Mortality Resources: Check out our Mortality webpage, which includes our homeless mortality toolkit, an overview of homeless mortality, and a guide for developing a homeless mortality review, as well as a clinical mortality review.

Researchers are also publishing more information about homeless deaths and factors that increase the likelihood of death — like encampment sweeps. Here are a few examples:

I’ve spoken before of Murder #2 — deaths from Indirect Policy Violence. Talking about collecting data sounds dry — but these are LIVES that are being lost and we don’t even have a proper count of them. I’m angry and sad that our society doesn’t do right by those who are still living OR by those who have died. And that ain’t right! Yes, Mother Jones, we’ll continue Praying for the Dead AND Fighting Like Hell for the Living. One piece of that struggle is to at least be able to answer the question: Who died without a home this year?

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