Community members will gather tonight at Freedom Plaza, across from the Wilson Building, for an overnight vigil honoring the 46 known people who had experienced homelessness in D.C. and died this year.
Sponsored by the People for Fairness Coalition and in part organized by homeless-services nonprofits like Friendship Place and Miriam’s Kitchen, the fourth annual vigil will kick off at Luther Place Church, from which participants will proceed to the plaza. Though temperatures will dip to 25 degrees tonight, some will sleep out there, in sight of city hall, where lawmakers vote on policies impacting the homeless. According to the vigil’s organizers, the deceased men and women range in age from 32 to 70 (though one person’s age was unknown). At least 15 of these people had been matched to housing vouchers and were ready to find an apartment when they died. At this time last year, 41 people were counted, but this data is by nature hard to collect.
Advocates say the dead, who were among the 8,350 homeless people registered in D.C. this year, according to federal officials, are a reminder of the need for more investment in services and permanent housing.
“[I hope this vigil will] put faces to names and show people that these are real people who had a lot to offer and were wonderful human beings who should still be with us, and will be truly missed,” says PFFC Executive Director Robert Warren. Homelessness rose 14 percent in the District over last year, based on a count conducted in January. D.C. has the highest rate of homelessness of 32 American cities—at 124.2 for every 10,000 residents—a recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found.
The District is in the midst of hypothermia season, when demand is greatest for services. In November, a man in a wheelchair appeared to have died of hypothermia in Columbia Heights, on a freezing night.
“What I keep coming back to is a city with $13 billion [in its annual budget] and how it’s disgraceful that people are living and dying on the streets,” says Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy specialist at Miriam’s Kitchen. In October, advocates met near the D.C. General family homeless shelter and the D.C. Jail, similarly pressing officials for more funds for affordable housing and anti-poverty measures. The city will pass its next budget in the coming months.
The vigil starts at 7 p.m. Tomorrow, there will be a “teach-in” at the Wilson Building, then a march to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for a memorial service.