On year’s longest night, Colorado Springs vigil marks the toll that homelessness takes

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For most people, Saturday marked the first day of winter. For Colorado Springs’ growing homeless population, the year’s longest night can feel like an eternity.

About 50 people gathered in the backyard of the Bijou House, a sober living home at 411 W. Bijou St., for the annual Longest Night vigil to remember those living on the streets who died in the past year.

As dusk fell across Colorado Springs, attendees lit candles and huddled around a fenced memorial with a small stone wall. Christmas lights wrapped around a weathered fence were reflected off the faces of the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The memorial has stood there for decades, serving as a year-round testament of the toll homelessness takes.

This year, 23 names were read aloud Saturday, followed by “We remember.” Dozens more were called out by the crowd.

The names read were compiled by an informal survey of homelessness-focused nonprofits in Colorado Springs. Every year, organizers acknowledge that their list isn’t comprehensive — a nod to the lonely lives and deaths of people living on the streets.

“If we’re not even seeing people for being people, we’re unfortunately disconnecting from reality,” said Anjuli Kapoor, executive director of Ithaka Land Trust, which runs Bijou House.

Colorado Springs mourns the deadly toll of homelessness at Longest Night vigil

Understanding the true death toll of homelessness every year is extremely difficult, advocates say.

Often without so much as a mailing address or an ID — a fact often owed to high rates of theft in the city’s homeless encampments — people living homeless often die in relative anonymity. And they die young.

Studies show people experiencing homelessness live about 30 years less than those who have shelter. The average lifespan of a homeless person is between 42 and 52 years, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Standing by himself, on the edge of the dirt alleyway, Joseph Young, 56, heard the names being called out.

Homeless for 15 years, he’s a regular at the vigil most years. This time, he recognized some of the names.

“This is for my own personal feelings,” he said. “My own solace.”

Halfway through, he hung his head.

“I don’t have this for no reason,” he said, holding up a tissue. “My eyes do leak.”

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People attend the annual Longest Night vigil held behind the Bijou House in Colorado Springs on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. Each year the vigil is held on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. People gather to say the names and remember individuals who die each year as a result of homelessness. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Every night, he sleeps “anywhere this bag takes me,” motioning to a large green backpack holding a sleeping bag and many of his belongings.

“It helps my soul,” he said, after the vigil.

Advocates say that as downtown Colorado Springs continues to be revitalized, the homeless become more marginalized, making it more challenging for nonprofits to reach them.

“One of the effects of that is pushing people who don’t have homes outside of the downtown area,” Kapoor said.

“All the agencies and services and food and shelter are all located downtown. As they’re getting pushed out, they’re also not accessing the services out on the outskirts.”

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Candles are lit during the annual Longest Night vigil held behind the Bijou House in Colorado Springs on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. Each year the vigil is held on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. People gather to say the names and remember individuals who die each year as a result of homelessness. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Homeless deaths can range from a variety of causes, including homicide, mental illness, poor nutrition, a lack of health care and the extreme physical toll living outside in the elements can inflict.

“It’s the community piece that keeps people housed,” Kapoor said. “It’s not the house. It’s about connecting instead of ostracizing.”

Cradling a candle in her hands, Tara-Lee Dalton, 41, wept for those who were gone, and for those, like herself, who are still struggling to survive.

Homeless for 2½ years, she lives in a white van parked, barely a block from where the mourners gathered.

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The tears kept coming with each name.

“I feel like I’m going to be the next one,” Dalton said. “I wish more people would show up and realize what is going on in Colorado Springs. This homeless problem, we’ve got to help it.

“We need more help with housing. More affordable housing. One job for a single person is not going to get you housing.”

Kristy Milligan, CEO of Westside CARES, spoke of friends she’d lost. One was a man named Greg, who wrote in his “5 wishes document” that he wanted to be remembered as “someone who tried.”

“The organizers of this vigil asked me to share about someone I’d lost,” Milligan said. “But there are too many someones, too many casualties of poverty and indifference, and we’ve all lost more than we even know …

“No. Three minutes, a lifetime, is not enough to tell you everything that we’ve lost.”

The Gazette’s Jakob Rodgers contributed to this report.