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Candlelight vigil honors 159 people who died while homeless in Utah

SHARE Candlelight vigil honors 159 people who died while homeless in Utah
JoAnne Johanson, whose children both died while experiencing homelessness, attends the annual candlelight vigil honoring those who died while homeless this year.

JoAnne Johanson, whose children both died while experiencing homelessness, attends the annual candlelight vigil honoring those who died while homeless this year at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. At least 159 people who were homeless in Utah died in 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Pioneer Park held a soft glow in the bitter cold as community members gathered to honor and remember those who died while experiencing homelessness in Utah.

The vigil was held on Wednesday, which marked the winter solstice, the darkest and longest night of the year. The National Council of Homeless encourages cities to set aside the date to honor those who’ve died within the year.

The event represents an opportunity for the community to grieve the losses and recognize those who’ve died. The 2022 list of names exceeds the list from previous years, according to the Fourth Street Clinic. Of the 159 people honored, 154 died this year and 5 died prior to 2022. The youngest person honored was 18 and the oldest was 78; two of them are brother and sister, both having died at the age of 18 only two years apart.

The vigil’s program featured musical performances by the Other Side Academy Choir, remarks from elected officials and a declaration by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox marking the day as Homeless Person’s Memorial Day, a benediction and a prayer. Each name was read aloud to the audience and a moment of silence was held in remembrance.

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Herbert Elliot reads the names of homeless people who died during the annual candlelight vigil at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. At least 159 people who were homeless in Utah died in 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As the names were read, the crowd was visibly overcome with emotion. Several members of the audience repeated names or yelled out in response.

“I just want to share a couple words, as well, about the overwhelming number of candles we see up here honoring those who passed while suffering with homelessness. A week before Christmas, when we’re all worried about buying presents to put under our trees, we had five people freeze to death on the streets,” said Steffine Amodt, Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness lived expert task group member.

Amodt shared her experience of homelessness and her ability to overcome it. She returned to school to receive her degree, was a legislative intern during the 2021 session and works as an advocate for those currently unhoused.

“Experiencing homelessness is one of the roughest things that I’ve gone through in my life. You carry around with you an unbearable weight and shame and fear and hopelessness. There comes a certain desperation of being in a nonstop fight or flight survival mode, and it’s exhausting,” said Amodt.

“My call to action tonight is simple: compassion,” she continued. “When you see someone who’s struggling with homelessness, rather than turning a blind eye or feeling upset at the unsightliness of the problem, take the time to get to know them and hear their stories.”

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People attend the annual candlelight vigil honoring those who died while homeless this year at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. At least 159 people who were homeless in Utah died in 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The vigil comes just days after state and city officials confirmed that at least five unsheltered people had died recently on Salt Lake City’s streets. The deaths prompted an emergency declaration from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to further increase capacity at homeless shelters, beyond the flex required in state law.

Salt Lake’s emergency declaration and similar ones announced by Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood will bring approximately 95 additional beds online. The increased capacity will not immediately go into effect and will “take some time to ramp up” as homeless providers work to meet the need, said Wayne Niederhauser, state homeless coordinator.

The deaths prompted outrage from community advocates and homeless providers. Seemingly aware of the potential backlash Wednesday night, officials advised the crowd to be silent.

“For many of these individuals, this is the only service that they will receive and where they will be remembered. I encourage you to hold the spirit of reverence in your heart this evening as we put aside our personal differences and opinions,” Niederhauser said at the vigil.

Several community members held protest signs at the vigil and called on elected officials, present on stage, to do better. Signs read: “Mendenhall you failed your unsheltered community” and “causing pain and trauma is not a policy, it’s a crime.”

The protesters were present throughout the vigil and began calling out to officials near the end. The group called the deaths preventable and pointed to them as a failure on Mendenhall’s behalf. The outburst prompted Niederhauser and Michael Mower, senior adviser to the governor, to shake their heads in response.

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John Ause attends the annual candlelight vigil honoring those who died while homeless this year at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. At least 159 people who were homeless in Utah died in 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The number 159 represents an approximate of those who may have died in the past year while experiencing homelessness. To fully inform policy decisions and the impact of homelessness the state medical examiner will begin to track the housing status for those who died in Utah starting in 2023, Niederhauser stated.

The data is intended to provide information on the average life expectancy of someone experiencing homelessness and give statistical evidence on the causes of death of those honored in the community vigil.

“Let us remember the 159 individuals. They were daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, wives, friends and we honored them tonight. They were people with vibrant lives and careers. They had family that loved them. They endured through struggles and cherished moments have brought them joy just like all of us here tonight,” Niederhauser said.

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Wayne Niederhauser, State Homeless Coordinator and board member of Shelter the Homeless, stands near candles honoring the men and women who died while experiencing homelessness this year at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. At least 159 people who were homeless in Utah died in 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News