On June 15, the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH) held a memorial service.
Despite the rain, several dozen people gathered at the Homeless Memorial Plaza to honour and remember homeless individuals who died.
“People that live on the street and that live in those kinds of conditions are often forgotten, or lost, or not noticed,” says Jim Gurnett, an ECOHH member and activist, “and we wanted to make sure there was a dignified way that their family and their friends and the people they know in the community could mourn them and could honour their lives.”
The coalition identified 453 individuals who died over the last three years directly or indirectly because of homelessness. In 2021 alone, 222 individuals died. But Susan Watson, the chairperson of the coalition’s Homeless Memorial Committee, notes that prior to 2016, only about 50 people experiencing homelessness died every year.
“We keep talking about… ending homelessness. And then when you look at the numbers, you know the reality is that’s not what’s happening,” says Watson. “Hopefully other people see that these aren’t just numbers. These are actually real people.”
Gurnett notes that the average life expectancy of homeless individuals that ECOHH identifies is between 50 and 60 years old. In contrast, the average life expectancy of housed Albertans is closer to 80. “To me, that says when we allow homelessness, we are robbing people of decades of life, decades of time to spend with family and friends and to do interesting things,” says Gurnett. “Homelessness kills.”
The ceremony, which was ECOHH’s first memorial since the start of the pandemic, involved music and prayers, and concluded with participants laying carnations on the Homeless Memorial statue. “It’s nothing very fancy, but… it’s always a very moving time,” says Gurnett.
A goal of the memorial was to raise more awareness about homelessness in Edmonton, in addition to giving friends and families a chance to grieve.
“There’s two key things that we always hope people take away,” says Gurnett. “One is that they are reminded that every life matters, and you don’t have to be wealthy and famous to deserve to be more and deserve to be grieved. So, it’s a reminder to all of us that each of these people are important in our community.”
“And secondly… we hope people go away saying, ‘I’ve got to start doing my part to end this blight in our city and make sure everybody does have decent housing.’”
Both Gurnett and Watson note that ending homelessness starts with housing, especially supportive housing. More support and understanding are needed.
“Everybody loses when we allow people not to have housing,” says Gurnett.