I haven’t dialed 911 very many times, yet it was the one thing that came to mind that August 2014 morning while out walking during my son’s karate practice. Yards from where our paths would cross, a man headed my direction lost control of his body and slumped to the ground. One moment we were about to make eye contact; the next, he was lying in the muddy dip between sidewalk and street, uttering strange sounds, eyes rolling back in his head, a plastic grocery sack pinned under his legs.
We think our lives are discreet packages. He, perhaps, on his way to the bus stop. Me, taking a break from extroverted parents at the dojo. But how often does something step in to remind us of tethers we otherwise tune out? The truth is: we rely on one another in this world. Even when we think we are strangers.
I attempted reassurance, amidst the dispatcher’s questions: “An ambulance is coming. Help is coming.” It didn’t look good. “Is he breathing?” asked 911. “Can he speak?” There were others out that morning. People arriving at the bus stop. Someone headed toward the day’s first cup of coffee. A dog walker. One person thought he recognized the man from a nearby park where people sometimes rested and hung out. But for a long stretch, it felt like just the man and me.
An older couple walked up behind us, quickly taking in the scene. One of them ran to the man and sat down next to him in the gutter. He took the man’s hand in his own, leaning in so that their faces were just inches from one another, “Help is on the way. I’m here with you. Try to stay awake.” I didn’t hear a response.
Each December, a memorial vigil is held to remember community members who died while experiencing homelessness in metropolitan Denver. The names of the deceased are read, one at a time, by community leaders searching for and implementing solutions. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has hosted the vigil for the last 30 years (the Denver Catholic Worker House before them), alongside publishing an unofficial count of the year’s total deaths.
The year I dialed 911 at the corner of West 34th Avenue and Osage Street, 84 men, women and children died while homeless in Denver. In 2018, the unofficial count had reached 233. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ Health and Homelessness Issue Brief 2019 reports that the life expectancy of Americans experiencing homelessness is a full 30 years lower than their housed counterparts. Causes of death here include everything from exposure to the elements to complications related to chronic illnesses (such as heart disease or diabetes) or addictions, and blunt and sharp force traumas such as gunshot wounds, suicide or blunt force to the head or torso.
Cathy Alderman, the Coalition’s vice president of communications and public policy, notes that, in 2019, there has been a visible increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in downtown Denver, as well as increased tensions and impacts emanating from the 2012 urban camping ban.
While the unofficial count of deaths and the surrounding trends in 2019 will not be available until this year’s vigil on Dec. 21, Alderman said that extreme weather patterns and ongoing difficulty in securing affordable housing will likely be reflected.
Her hope is that, as Denver seeks to create a more compassionate community supportive of those experiencing homelessness, the city’s residents will find ways to look beyond fears and stigma to see each person experiencing homelessness as a person, trying to understand their circumstances.
Benjamin Dunning, founder and organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, echoes this hope. How can people in Denver get involved? Dunning said, “First, please, stop being afraid.”
In his work, Dunning sees misconceptions around drug use and behavioral problems that prevent neighborhoods from welcoming and supporting affordable housing. Both Alderman and Dunning would like to see year-round involvement and deeper, better-informed, sustained personal commitment, extending well beyond seasonal activities like sock drives.
That morning in 2014, I watched with relief as one neighbor sat with another and held his hand, a rare tenderness between strangers. An ambulance pulled up, brief words were exchanged; the man was whisked off and under the care of paramedics. He didn’t look any better than he had when I first dialed 911. I phoned the police later to see where he had been taken and how he was doing. I felt tethered in a way words cannot describe. The officer, hearing I wasn’t family, was taken aback by the call, “He died, ma’am. He died on the way to the hospital.”
30th Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil
5:30 to 6:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21
City and County Building front steps, 1437 Bannock St.