The windows and walls at Manhattan's Drisha Institute for Jewish Education were lined last night with large sheets of paper covered with 143 names, each the name of a homeless person who died in NYC this year.
For the past five years, the homeless service agencies Care for the Homeless and Urban Pathways have organized New York City’s Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, part of a nationwide event that commemorates the deaths of individuals who were homeless. The event is held in cities across the country on the winter solstice—the longest night of the year.
The 143 individuals whose names were inscribed on the memorial lists—as well as a handful whose names were called out—represent only a fraction of the total number of dead.
"This has been a rough year," said Urban Pathways Deputy Executive Director Lisa Lombardi. Lombardi said her organization's street outreach teams, which canvass the Port Authority Bus Terminal and much of Midtown, worked with at least 10 homeless people who died this year. "Homelessness is exploding."
The population of Department of Homeless Services shelters hit record highs this fall and continues to hover around 60,000. That figure does not include people staying at shelters operated by faith-based organizations or drop-in centers, nor does it include the countless individuals who are temporarily sharing space with friends or family.
In recent weeks, the tragic deaths of two young girls at a cluster-site shelter in the Bronx have drawn media attention to some of the perils of homelessness. But many of the city's homeless die in relative anonymity. They are victims of violence, preventable illness, or neglect. Those whose bodies go unclaimed are buried in trenches at Hart's Island, New York City's potter's field.
A list of 143 homeless New Yorkers who died this year. (Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist)
With darkness fallen over the city, a lone bell rang as agency staff and client leaders—formerly homeless individuals who now serve as outreach workers and advocates—stood at a podium to read the names of the deceased. As each name was a read, it was projected onto a screen. Occasionally, a photograph, a date of birth, or a short biography was also displayed, but many were remembered only by a first name—Youshie or Henry—or a nickname, like "Red."
Attendees held thin white candles as friends and colleagues delivered eulogies for a handful of honorees.
David Broxton, a client advocate who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and raised a family in Laurelton, Queens, eulogized his friend Carla Statford, a mezzo-soprano who sang with him in the Valley Lodge Shelter Choir.
"She inspired me in many ways," he said. "I loved her spirit because she was homeless and she went through the shelters, but every Thursday you could count on Carla to be there at practice."
Care for the Homeless client leader Calvin Alston wept as he recalled the October murder of 18-year-old Ashton Niles near 145th Street in Harlem. Scott McDonald spoke about his old friend Richard Labue—their shared love of sports made them the "Mike and the Mad Dog" of the shelter where they met.
Andre West, an employment specialist at Urban Pathways, eulogized Steven Browand, a client who showed up to each appointment dapper in a suit and quickly secured a job as a hotel security guard. West said Browand influenced his own presentation and demeanor.
"He changed the way I dressed. Instead of wearing khakis and boat shoes to work, I began wearing suits and ties," West said. "We called it the 'Browand Way.'"
The stories of the dead and the makeup of the crowd reflected the enormous diversity of New York's homeless. West said he himself experienced homelessness even as he studied for a degree at Monroe College, where he graduated summa cum laude. After his father died and family members kicked him out of their home, West said, he stayed in a park near Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx.
"Now I tell my clients, 'I can be you and you can be me,'" he said. "My clients will say, ‘Well, Mr. West washed up at McDonald's and slept in a park but look at him now.'"
For writer Philip Malebranche, 58, the hardest part of being homeless was not cold weather, food insecurity, or wondering where he was going to sleep. It was the stigma he encountered, even from family members.
"People have their prejudgements," Malebranche said. "They have difficulties seeing homeless people as like everybody else, as being possibly anybody. There's diversity among the homeless population that people don't realize. People think it's all substance abuse and domestic violence, but it's a diverse population and we need people to see that anyone can experience homelessness."
Malebranche, whose family is Haitian, said he earned a sociology degree from a college in Pennsylvania and later moved to France. A fluent French speaker, he served as a translator for English-speaking refugees fleeing conflicts in Sri Lanka, Africa, and Eastern Europe. He later worked with Haitian asylum-seekers at Guantanamo Bay before the naval base became a prison. When returned to the United States, he found work, but after a series of evictions and sporadic employment, he found himself without a place to stay. For most of the past two decades, he's been homeless.
"Nowadays, with the economic problems, anybody can become homeless," he said. "There are people with middle class backgrounds who end up on the streets. It might be a fire or a divorce or a psychiatric episode. People have a hard time seeing that a homeless person can be educated, but there are very well educated people on the streets. I met people with PhDs on the street."
(Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist)
Research on the relationship between housing and health outcomes is clear: homeless people, on average, die decades earlier than their peers with stable housing.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the death rate among homeless individuals between 44 and 65 was four and a half times that of their non-homeless peers; for homeless individuals between 25 and 44, the rate was nine times as high.
Advocates at the event said they consider housing a prescription for preventable illness and premature death.
"Housing is physical health care, housing is mental health care and housing is spiritual health care," said Urban Pathways Chief Operating Officer Ron Abad. "Not having a home crushes the spirit, which leads to depression and stress."
Foreman said that people seem resigned to the notion of homelessness as an inevitable aspect of urban life, rather than considering how effective policies—like renovating empty NYCHA apartments, expanding the Section 8 voucher program, or fulfilling a state and city commitment to build 35,000 units of supportive housing—could drastically reduce homelessness.
"In the richest city in the richest country in the history of the world, why have we not been able to deal with homelessness and deep poverty?" Foreman said. "It would cost less to end homelessness than the amount of money we're spending right now to not end homelessness."
Delivering the event's closing remarks, Care for the Homeless client leader Ava Conner addressed this persistent failure to address homelessness.
"Sadder even than a person dying without a home," Conner said, pausing to wipe away tears. "Is that society knows how to end homelessness and hasn't."
David F. Brand is a Brooklyn-based writer and social worker. He runs preventive health programs at affordable and supportive housing sites around the city.