Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



The Longest, Darkest Night of the Year


On December 21st, the longest night of the year, communities across America observe Homeless Memorial Day. Last year, 175 communities held an event. But most people have never heard of Homeless Memorial Day, and that's unfortunate.

Though it's been held for 25 years, it's usually not covered by the media. If ever it deserves coverage and thought, though, it's this year in New York City.

A month ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published its "Point-in-Time" homelessness count. They reported a 4 percent decline in homelessness across America in 2013 including significant decreases in urban areas. But in New York City, HUD's count, supervised by the city itself, documented a dramatic jump in homelessness.

Homeless advocates have been lamenting the record number of 57,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. But the HUD count for one night in January 2013, estimated the city's homeless population at 64,060. That's a new record — in a bad way. It's enough people to fill Yankee stadium and jam Times Square, too.

Highlighting further the plight of children like Dasani — whose life was so powerfully described in last week’s bombshell New York Times series — HUD reported a 13 percent New York City increase including 39,601 people in homeless families. Tragically, their report for the city's homeless population, number of homeless families and homeless children may be the highest ever reported.

That makes Homeless Memorial Day 2013 especially poignant.

Homeless Memorial Day remembers those who died in our community this year without a home. Many of them might have no memorial remembrance at all if not for Homeless Memorial Day.

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One person I'll be remembering is Jose Perez. He died without a home on September 12, 2013, in Elmhurst Hospital. I never actually met him, but I'll be thinking of him.

Mr. Perez was brutally beaten in Sabba Park, Sunnyside, Queens, on September 7th not far from where I live. He was assaulted simply because he was homeless and vulnerable. It certainly wasn't a robbery - homeless people are easy targets but not very promising victims for theft.

He died at the age of 42. That's way too young — but not all that young for a chronically homeless person.

Homeless Memorial Day reminds us how dramatically the trauma, stress and exposure of homelessness rob chronically homeless people of years of life.

A child born in New York City today has a life expectancy of over 80 years.  Studies document chronically homeless peoples' life expectancy is in their 40s or 50s. That's three or four decades lost, needlessly, to homelessness.

Senseless attacks on homeless people are increasing according to an annual Coalition for the Homeless study reporting over 1,000 documented attacks in the last decade. That's based on very incomplete reporting because most attacks on homeless people aren't reported. Sometimes even if they are reported by the victim they go unrecorded in official statistics. That's why a quarter of the attacks reported are fatal — not because 25 percent of the beatings end in death but because most nonfatal attacks aren't recorded.

Most victims are men in their 40s — just like Mr. Perez.   Most perpetrators are male, too, but about half are 20 years old or younger. The youngest documented "hate crime" attack against a homeless person was by a 9 year old. A study at California State University in San Bernardino found homeless people had a greater victimization rate — 66 percent annually — "than any other group in the western industrialized world."

But attacks and traumas are hardly the major health hazard of chronic homelessness recognized on Homeless Memorial Day. Epidemiological studies have found homelessness itself is a cause of morbidity and premature death. Those who practice street medicine and provide health care to homeless people have long known that homelessness is a public health crisis, an aggravating condition for disease and an interference with effective treatment.

It was eye-opening research from the city's Departments of Health and Homeless Services that found age-adjusted death rate for single adults in city shelters to be twice that of the city's general population. They reported homeless adults represented well under 1 percent of the population but over 1.6 percent of the hospitalizations, with their hospital admissions lasting more than 12 percent longer than average.  They found some diseases rare in the general population rampant in shelters.

For instance, their report put TB rates in city shelters at 11 times that of the city overall. The HIV diagnosis rate was an incredible 16 times that of the city. Even with heroic efforts to get homeless people off the streets in bitter cold weather, there are dozens of exposure deaths in New York City annually. Mental illness and emotional distress is epidemic among people experiencing homelessness.

Homeless Persons' Memorial Day recognizes the threat to health and life that living without a home carries. Homeless advocate Bobby Watts coined the phrase "death by park bench" in painting the picture of the homelessness health hazard.

If you want to hear more about the scourge of homelessness, its health consequences, how homelessness can be overcome and to memorialize those who passed in New York City this year without a home, there are several events being held in Gotham.

Two outstanding observances are the Picture the Homeless Memorial Service at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South at 6 p.m. on Friday evening, Dec. 20; and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 21, at the Care for the Homeless client leaders' event at New Song Church, 2230 Frederick Douglass Blvd. between 120th and 121st streets in Harlem.

Homeless Memorial Day also recognizes these deaths are avoidable. Better policies could end modern day homelessness as we know it and end the health hazard and premature death sentences it carries with it.

Jeff Foreman is policy director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter @JeffForeman2