Homeless people who died on US streets are increasingly remembered at winter solstice gatherings

Dec 20, 2023, 12:52 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — With his gap-tooth smile, hip-hop routines and volunteer work for a food charity, Roosevelt White III was well known in the downtown Phoenix tent city known as “The Zone.”

But like many homeless people, White suffered from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. He died unexpectedly one sweltering September day at age 36.

Thousands of people like White who died this year without a permanent home are being memorialized on Thursday in communities from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Riverside, California. Established in 1990, the increasingly popular Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is observed with prayers, candles, moments of silence and the reading of names on Dec. 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

A national gathering called “One Life, Too Many. Another Year, Too Long” is planned Thursday afternoon in Washington, with a Zoom call so people can follow from afar.

Other gatherings will be in Cincinnati, Ohio; Wilmington, Delaware; and San Diego. A ceremony in Phoenix will honor 758 homeless people confirmed to have died so far this year in Maricopa County, the most populous in Arizona and home to Phoenix, the state’s largest city.

That’s already a record. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner investigated 732 deaths of homeless people in 2022, representing a 42% jump in deaths from 2021.

“Without sufficient housing and services, people will continue to die on the streets,” said Lisa Glow, CEO at Central Arizona Shelter Services, which operates the state’s largest emergency shelter, a 600-bed facility in Phoenix.

DeBorah Gilbert White, the public education director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said learning about those who died can shatter stereotypes. At one event several years ago, she learned of a 3-year-old homeless girl who died in the nation’s capital.

“Meanwhile, as our overall population is growing older, we are seeing more homeless people dying in their 60s,” said White. She noted that many older homeless people with chronic conditions like diabetes don’t have the necessary conditions, such as refrigeration for insulation, to care for their health.

Overall, homelessness is surging. The recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that roughly 653,100 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness. That’s a 12% overall increase over the previous year and the highest since reporting began in 2007.

“A lot of people living in encampments are uninsured and without access to medical treatment for a variety of illnesses that are exacerbated by living unsheltered,” said Etel Haxhiaj, a spokesperson for the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council.

The council supports the remembrance events to push for better tracking of the deaths.

Maricopa County is among few U.S. jurisdictions engaged in such tracking.

Drug and alcohol abuse figured into many deaths and was often the main cause. While a stroke killed White, methamphetamine intoxication contributed to his death, according to the medical examiner. Cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks, followed by traffic injuries, are also common ways that homeless people die.

Many homeless people are estranged from family, which means their deaths can pass virtually unnoticed. But when White died, at least 60 people, including family members from Arizona and Oklahoma, showed up for his funeral. The food was catered by Feed Phoenix, the nonprofit organization he volunteered with.

Among the mourners was Phoenix documentary photographer Eric Elmore, who created numerous black and white portraits of White over a year. The downtown encampment where White lived once housed hundreds of people in tents, but has since been cleared out under a court order.

“He had this kind of energy that would just draw you in,” Elmore said of White. “He had a huge personality.”

Megan Kepler, who volunteered with White, remembered him on Wednesday as “a man who was full of kindness and joy.”

“Although he had many struggles, he always had a smile on his face and a positive attitude. He stayed hopeful in the face of difficulties,” said Kepler. “We miss our friend dearly, and hope that others can see that he was not just a number, but instead a valued and loved human being.”

AP (New)

Associated Press

Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn pleads not guilty in Arizona’s fake elector case

PHOENIX (AP) — Lawyers Boris Epshteyn and Jenna Ellis and former U.S. Senate candidate James Lamon have pleaded not guilty to nine felony charges for their roles in trying to overturn former President Donald Trump’s Arizona election loss to Joe Biden. The hearing Tuesday in a Phoenix courtroom marked the last of 18 arraignments in […]

2 days ago

Associated Press

Record-breaking US heat wave scorches the Midwest and Northeast, bringing safety measures

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Stifling heat blanketed tens of millions across United States on Tuesday, forcing people and even zoo animals to find ways to cool down as summer arrives in what promises to be a sweltering week. Extreme heat alerts stretched from Iowa to Ohio and even into the upper reaches of Michigan on […]

2 days ago

Associated Press

Over 75 million people in the US are under heat alerts. Go indoors and hydrate

PHOENIX (AP) — Over 75 million people in the United States were under extreme heat alerts Monday as a heat wave moved eastward, and the mid-Atlantic and New England were likely to see highs in the 90s as the week progresses. Excessive humidity will make it feel even more oppressive. The U.S. last year saw […]

3 days ago

Associated Press

Phoenix police have pattern of violating civil rights and using excessive force, Justice Dept. says

PHOENIX (AP) — Phoenix police discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Native American people, unlawfully detain homeless people and use excessive force, including unjustified deadly force, according to a sweeping federal civil rights investigation of law enforcement in the nation’s fifth-largest city. The U.S. Justice Department report released Thursday says investigators found stark racial disparities in […]

7 days ago

Associated Press

Arizona man sold firearms to undercover FBI agent for mass shooting, indictment says

PHOENIX (AP) — A firearms dealer in Arizona sold weapons to an undercover federal agent he believed would help him carry out his plan for a mass shooting targeting minorities, an attack that he hoped would “incite a race war,” according to a federal grand jury indictment. Mark Adams Prieto was indicted Tuesday by the […]

7 days ago

Associated Press

National Weather Service forecasts more sweltering heat this week for Phoenix and Las Vegas areas

PHOENIX (AP) — More sweltering heat appears to be headed to parts of Arizona and Nevada this week. The National Weather Service said Sunday that an excessive heat watch is in effect Tuesday through Thursday for the Phoenix metro area plus other portions of south-central and northwest Arizona. Temperatures could reach 111 F (43.8 C) […]

11 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.


Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.



Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

Homeless people who died on US streets are increasingly remembered at winter solstice gatherings