Not long after twilight on the evening of December 16, several hundred people gathered outside the darkened Denver City and County Building, its holiday lights dimmed for the occasion. Each held a small white candle, warmly lighting their faces in a flickering glow. They looked ahead toward a podium on the steps from where Mayor John Hickenlooper read aloud a list of names, the crowd responding to each with a soft, solemn "we will remember."
The vigil was a memorial for 155 men, women and children who lived on the streets of the Denver metropolitan area and died during 2009. They were lost to exposure, violence, vehicular accidents, and most frequently illness due to chronic disease. According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, homeless people experience illness at a rate 3 to 6 times that experienced by housed people. Without access to appropriate healthcare services, those who experience frequent homelessness have a probable life span of between 42 and 52 years.
"Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living," said Colorado Coalition for the Homeless President John Parvensky, quoting Mary Harris "Mother" Jones to remind the crowd of the tasks ahead. "I look forward to the day when don’t have to do this memorial again, as we build more housing and provide more services and end the crisis of homelessness that has brought us together tonight." He pointed to the groundbreaking of new housing just this month as one positive step in that direction.
As the bright lights on the City and County building switched back on and the crowd began to drift away, some discussed their own experiences with homelessness. Crystal, a nurse at St. Joseph’s hospital, said she has treated more people without homes this year than ever before, "It’s unbelievably sad that so many have died because they don’t have shelter." A nearby group of St. Joseph nuns agreed. "After all," said Sister Maureen of Denver, motioning toward the plaster Nativity on the steps, "Jesus was homeless too—there was no room at the inn."
For more info about homelessness in Denver: Visit www.coloradocoalition.org