Community residents, friends, affordable housing advocates and homeless and formerly homeless constituents came together on Monday for a candlelight vigil for two more Rhode Islanders who died on the streets.
The vigil was held for Wendy Tallo and Irene Weh, two women who lived on the streets for years, and both died in the Grace Church Cemetery in Providence where the candlelight vigil was held.
Wendy and Irene are the sixth and seventh deaths this year of homeless persons living outside. And while the official cause of deaths for the cases vary, advocates contend that the real killer in all cases were the same: homelessness.
“The results of a recent study in England confirm what decades of research in the United States and worldwide have found: homelessness kills,” according to the Homelessness Resource Center for the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “People who experience homelessness have a morality rate four times that of the general population. They die decades earlier, often from treatable medical conditions. Women who experience homelessness are especially vulnerable.”
The interim findings of a study investigating homeless mortality in England from 2001 to 2009 revealed that the average age of death of a homeless person is 47. This compares to 77 for the general population. Homeless women die even younger, at an average age of 43. Additional findings include:
- Homeless people are over nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population;
- Deaths as a result of traffic accidents are 3 times as likely, infections twice as likely and falls over 3 times as likely; and
- Being homeless is incredibly difficult both physically and mentally and has significant impacts on people’s health and well-being. Ultimately, homelessness kills.
The authors of the report note that these health disparities exist despite significant investment in the National Health Service. They state: “That homeless people die at such a young age is a tragedy. That homelessness could be easily prevented and is not is a scandal.”
Similarly, other research in the United States and around the world over the past 40 years revealed the same results. Author James O’Connell, M.D., notes that the relationship between homelessness and early mortality is remarkably consistent. Despite different methodologies and cultures, studies reveal:
- People who experience homelessness have a mortality rate three to four times that of the general population;
- The average age at death of a person who is homeless is between 42 and 52 years of age; and
- Younger women who are homeless have a mortality rate that is 4 to 31 times higher than that of women who are housed.
“No doubt about it, homelessness kills,” exclaimed Barbara Kalil, Co-Director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP) and a member of the Statewide Outreach Committee. “But it doesn’t have to,” she adds. “We know the cure/solution is permanent affordable housing and it angers me that we aren’t housing our homeless residents more quickly.”
Advocates decry the sixth and seventh deaths of this year. After a particularly brutal winter, outreach workers had breathed a collective sigh of relief that no one died outside in the cold winter months. The seven deaths since March are a stark reminder of the year-round danger of being homeless.
The Statewide Outreach Committee of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, which is comprised of outreach workers from around the state, made a decision at the beginning of the year that if anyone died homeless while outside, they would hold a vigil to bring visibility to the fact of Rhode Islanders dying on the streets.
The vigil opened with a song by Officer Jimmy Winters of the Newport Police Department and a long-time advocate for those Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. Winters is the founder of the Housing Hotline, a non-profit organization that helps people with any kind of housing issue or homelessness.
Advocates pointed to the 2013 homeless figures that show a decrease in the number of homeless Rhode Islanders for the first time since 2007 as evidence that we, indeed, can do better.
In February the 2013 Annual Statistics were released that showed a decrease by 9% in the total numbers of homeless from 4,868 in 2012 to 4,447 in 2013. The Annual Statistics also showed decreases from 2012 to 2013 for children, families and veterans entering homelessness.
The decrease has been attributed to a combination of a recovering economy and the homeless system beginning to see the benefits of programs outlined in Opening Doors Rhode Island, the state’s plan to end homelessness.
Advocates contend that the decline in the homeless numbers is a result of funding focused on permanent supportive housing and they urged legislators to stay committed and focused on Opening Doors Rhode Island, the state’s plan to end homelessness and to make sure that it continues to be implemented and fully funded.
Opening Doors Rhode Island outlines a plan that significantly transforms the provision of services to Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. Consistent with the new federal plan to end homelessness, the plan seeks to sharply decrease the numbers of people experiencing homelessness and the length of time people spend homeless.
The vigil ended with candles being lit as the sun set and Officer Winters played music.
“Our message tonight is that we can do better,” exclaimed Don Boucher, Assistant Executive Director for Riverwood Mental Health Services. “We have to stop looking away because when we look away people die. We all need the courage to look around us and see those who are living on the streets. Averting our eyes will not solve the problem. The truth is, if we are willing to look long enough we will know what to do to solve the problem.”