At the Denver City and County Building on the cold evening of Dec. 21, more than 200 people gathered to memorialize the homeless people who died in Denver in 2018. The Denver Homeless Coalition has put on this annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil for 29 years. The unusually large attendance this year confirmed what many already know — that the housing crisis in Denver is getting worse.
After introductions and a eulogy came the naming of homeless people who died in 2018 — a list of 233 names — the highest number of people ever memorialized at this event. Drug overdoses and blunt-force trauma led the causes of death. More than half had no cause of death given by a medical examiner. Organizers offered time after the listing for participants to shout out the names of homeless friends and family who had also passed that year. As speeches were made and hymns were sung, a quote spoken during the service stayed in the air: “It is not a failure of theirs, but a failure of ours.”
Liberation News reporters were on the scene and interviewed some of the organizers and participants.
Randle Loeb is a board member of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and a long-time community organizer. He has been homeless since the ‘90s. As Liberation News interviewed Loeb, he stood at the edge of the demonstration and handed programs to people entering the space. Many knew him by name, and as he handed each person a program he repeated the number of homeless deaths in 2017. Randle also read a eulogy.
“I’ve been involved in this for 20 years, this ain’t my first rodeo. It’s tragic; people need a place to stay. We need permanent support of housing. The greatest problem is the gap between the richest and the poorest. One of my dearest friends, I am reading tonight the name of his nephew. Died from alcoholism. And I can’t tell you how hard he worked to help him, as well as our organization. But I find that whole thing of a person’s responsibility not as important as the community’s responsibility to provide shelter. What we have is a conundrum that we’re not really stepping up to take care of the most essential part of it, which is that everybody, no matter what their perspective, has a place to stay. I have been on the streets since the 90s, and for a long time I felt like I had done everything wrong, and I felt that that was why I was in the situation.
“I also see that we haven’t been inclusive in making sure that everybody has a safe level of existence. My wife was born in Puerto Rico. I think about the devastating storm that took out most of island, especially where I had lived. The [U.S. government] response, our response, was reprehensible, still is. The infrastructure needs to exist so that people, whether they are an indigenous clan or live in a metro area, have a place to stay. It is scandalous that we don’t have housing for everyone, especially for children and mothers that are struggling to exist. There needs to be a balance in the economy of scale, to make sure that wealth is not misused.
“Homelessness in Denver certainly connects to how the United States deals with people all over the world. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria… I could go on, how many countries do you want me to list? The Statue of Liberty has been battered and abused and beaten down for a long time.
“I think most of my brothers and sisters are afraid, or else this whole area would be filled with people. Because of the fact that it reminds them of the most singular problem, and that is that I have a feeling that if I died, no one would know it. So many people are afraid of this, or even to say, “I was homeless.” Because they don’t want that that stigma attached to them. There is no excuse to read 233 names. There is no excuse for 233 deaths. And my name will be read one day.”
Mark Fowley works with the homeless administration of the Veterans’ Affairs in Denver. More than 10 percent of the homeless in Denver are veterans of U.S. wars. Mark has experienced homelessness, and he was raised by a homeless single mother. Liberation News interviewed him as the crowd gathered in front of the Denver City and County Building.
“My name is Mark Fowley. I haven’t been to this event before. This year, I am here because I work with homeless administrations at the VA — it’s a community referral program — so I was motivated by that. I’m a vet and I’ve experienced a little bit of homelessness in my life so I like to pay tribute to that.
“Homelessness has affected me personally, as well as my family. I work with a homeless program and that has affected me, my family has been homeless and we’ve struggled with that. I was in the Navy. It was a love-hate relationship with the Navy, I disagreed with much of it.
“Compared to other cities I’ve been in, the VA here does a fantastic job. They’re really focused on community based programs. There’s always somewhere to get food in Denver, so I think they do a great job. But one thing the city should focus on is enlarging emergency sheltering because we have a lot of people coming to Colorado. This event is fantastic for raising awareness, but I also know it takes funds to build that and manage it so I support any kind of tax increase to fund it, but that’s hard to get.”
The extreme homeless death toll in Denver is, without a doubt, connected to the aggressive methods the city has resorted to in order to expel people without homes from the city, putting many in ever more perilous living situations. As rent prices rise and new luxury condos pop up, homeless camps are swept, often violently, from place to place around the city by the police.
The housing crisis in Denver is not natural, and homeless people are not to blame for their plight. Wealthy developers profit from a housing market that forces renters into precarious situations and forces some out of their homes.
Homelessness is at an all-time high in Denver, with over 5,000 homeless and about 20 percent of those identifying themselves as newly homeless. Many of these people have been subject to lack of access to shelter despite inhospitable weather, lack of access to sanitary items, lack of food access, police brutality, and more.
The solution is a housing plan that puts people before profit. At the Memorial Vigil, many activists and homeless people said that universal housing is the only humane, safe, and permanent solution to rising homeless deaths. We are with them. Housing for Denver now!