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Candlelight vigil honors 77 homeless Utahns who died in 2013

SALT LAKE CITY — For John Wilkes, cold, snowy nights like Thursday evening stir memories of his years of living on the streets of Salt Lake City.

“I remember too many nights like that when I thought I’d never see the light of the next day or ever be dry or warm again. And thousands of people experienced that this year, and 77 didn’t make it,” said Wilkes, speaking at a memorial service for homeless Utahns who died during 2013.

The annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial and Candlelight vigil at Pioneer Park honored 77 men and women who died during the past year. Organizers said two-thirds of the people who passed away were in housing, which means they died “with a little bit of their dignity restored,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes, who was technically homeless for 10 years and on the streets for half of that time, moved into Section 8 housing in April. Four years before that, he lived in permanent supportive housing at Palmer Court, a facility of The Road Home. He now serves on Fourth Street Clinic’s consumer advisory board with other formerly homeless men and women who recommend changes in policy and practice at the clinic.

“My associates (on the consumer advisory board) are the greatest testament that there is hope to overcoming homelessness,” he said.

Salt Lake Justice Court Judge John Baxter, who regularly conducts sessions of homeless court at Catholic Community Services' St. Vincent de Paul Center, said people who work with homeless men and women are humbled by the experience.

“Those of us who work on a daily basis with the homeless understand how fragile our existence is. We understand that with one accident, one foreclosure, one illness, we are no longer helping the homeless, we are homeless ourselves,” he said.

Pamela Atkinson, longtime advocate for people living in poverty, said the annual vigil is a “small tribute to lives cut exceedingly short by extreme poverty and disease.”

Homeless people experience disease three to four times more often and die, on average, three decades earlier than the general population, she said.

“What a sad, sad commentary that is. Tonight we honor 77 people who lived and died these statistics,” Atkinson said.

Wilkes said as he read and heard others call the names of the deceased, “that this (homelessness) is so incredibly unnecessary in this country."

While government, nonprofit and private partners are making progress on homelessness in Utah on many fronts, Wilkes urged Utahns to do small things to help ease the burdens of homeless individuals.

“I’d really like to inspire people to just do the simplest things, especially people in this neighborhood. Be more a part of the solution. Just reach out to that person sitting on the sidewalk or in the park. Buy them a cup of coffee and or a sandwich. Find out what they’re about," he said.

“They’re not an issue. They’re not a problem. They’re not an infestation. They’re human beings.”