Marching for 103 Minnesotans who died while homeless

In 2019, the average age of death for Minnesotans still homeless was roughly 43, according to John Petroskas, pictured at right. Photo courtesy of Caroline Yang Photography

Temperatures were below freezing the night of the Homeless Memorial March on Dec. 19, but Robert ‘Bobby’ Schmit said it wouldn’t be too cold to sleep outside. When it’s 20 or 30 below zero, he said, that’s when it becomes dangerous.

Marching with a sleeping bag by his side, Schmit carried a sign in honor of his friend John, who he described as a Vietnam veteran who slept at Peavey Plaza for more than a decade and died earlier this year of cancer. He said John routinely sat outside Caribou Coffee on Nicollet Mall with a sign that stated: “It is what it is.” 

“Nobody deserves to die without being acknowledged, or somebody shedding a tear,” said Jeanne Worm, a longtime marcher. 

Every year, advocates for the homeless collect name submissions, contact the medical examiner’s office and monitor news reports in an attempt to honor all the homeless who died that year. They worry about who they might be missing. 

And every year, people ask if many died outside in the cold, said Robert Hofmann, Simpson shelter program manager.

“The answer is that there are names of people on this list tonight who froze to death and who died under a bridge or in a homeless shelter. But there are many more who died from the same everyday causes that afflict anybody who struggles with poverty and trauma and generational racism,” he said. “One thing that we know for sure is that homelessness has contributed to the deaths of everybody that we’re going to remember tonight.”

They remembered 103 homeless individuals who died in 2019 — the highest number reported since at least 2006 — along with 69 formerly homeless and 18 advocates, including Patricia Yellow Hammer, age 42, of Minneapolis; Rodney Dixon, age 49 of Minneapolis; an unidentified woman from St. Paul and a “baby boy” from Hennepin County. 

The marchers gathered at the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza and walked a two-mile route to Plymouth Congregational Church, where they read aloud each name and lit candles for the deceased. 

The late Jo Ann “JoJo” Johnson (pictured in the Southwest Journal in 2018) had been fighting cancer harder than anyone realized, Hofmann said. Age 60, she had been housed the last six months of her life and reconciled with her daughter. Before she died, she told her daughter about a treehouse her grandfather had built while the family was “dirt poor” in rural Alabama. Her daughter recently visited the long-abandoned property to find the treehouse still standing. She plans to scatter Johnson’s ashes there among climbing plants, so Johnson can climb the treehouse again. 

Jo Ann Johnson (center) pictured at Simpson shelter in 2018.

The late David Francis, age 68, once ranked among the most frequent shelter users in Hennepin County over the course of 30 or more years, according to Simpson staff. As part of the “Top 51,” a pilot program to house single adults with the longest shelter stays, he was among the first to move into Higher Ground at 165 Glenwood Ave. N. when the apartments opened in 2012. Matthew Ayres, Simpson’s volunteer engagement and partnerships manager, remembered feeling startled to run into Francis shopping at Cub Foods in Uptown. 

“You build the right housing and people will move into it,” he said. 

December’s march marked the 35th anniversary of the memorial service. It started in 1984 when a frequent guest of the Simpson Men’s Shelter, Eric, a quiet Vietnam War veteran, was discovered beaten to death near the railroad tracks. Simpson United Methodist gathered to honor his life and others who had died that year. Inspired by the service, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless suggested a larger annual event, honoring as many people as possible.

Last spring Simpson Housing Services accepted a gift of the Simpson United Methodist Church property at 2740 1st Ave. S., where Simpson operates a shelter in the basement. The nonprofit is beginning conceptual designs for a new window-filled 24/7 shelter space, where guests would access services for physical, mental and chemical health. Shelter development is expected to take place over the next two or three years, with no gaps in shelter service.

Cause of death

The total number of people experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County has decreased by 19% since 2014, driven by a decrease in families who are homeless, according to the county. But the number of people sleeping outside without shelter has significantly increased, with more single adults staying in encampments, riding public transportation or spending nights in cars.

Homelessness is associated with a mortality rate four to nine times higher than the rate for people with homes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Living homeless is associated with greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, issues with mental health and substance use and becoming a victim of violence.

“Homelessness and health are interconnected: with poor health being both a cause and result of homelessness,” states the Minnesota Department of Health in a 2019 report on housing. 

For about 15 years, John Petroskas has volunteered to assemble a list of the homeless who have died. “I just live in fear of not getting every name,” he said.

In 2019, the average age of death for people still homeless was roughly 43, he said. By contrast, the average age of death for the formerly homeless who moved into housing was 50, he said. 

“That gap has been really persistent through the years,” he said. “I think that’s evidence that housing can save lives or extend the length of a person’s life.”

While he doesn’t know the cause of death in all cases, the most common cause of death this year was overdose, he said. He received reports, some unverified, that overdoses killed 26 homeless and 15 formerly homeless people.

“That’s definitely an increase over years past,” he said, noting that about 10 fatal overdoses occurred in 2015.

Many homeless deaths were caused by illness and disease, he said, and other frequent unexpected causes of death in 2019 included homicide, suicide, drowning, and being struck by vehicles.

“Opiates have really swept through our community. There have been so many accidental overdoses,” Hofmann said. 

He sees the single biggest risk factor as people using street drugs alone, without knowing the potency of what they’re using. He said advocates talk a lot about harm reduction and ways to reduce isolation.

“Find ways to bring people in rather than push them out,” he said. 

Dignity in life and death

“I want to recognize the grief in this room, and the energy that it takes, and what happens when a group of people is continually subjected to loss,” said Cypress Budenosky, speaking at the memorial service. “These deaths were preventable. … They don’t just deserve a place to die in peace, I want them to have a place to go and relax and live instead.”

Hofmann said participants often talk about the meaning behind the march: Everyone deserves some dignity in death. 

“I want you to take that spirit with you when you interact with folks that are still struggling. We don’t filter out anybody on this list, no matter what struggles may have led to their mortality. Likewise, don’t filter out who you choose to wrap yourselves around in life because of what their struggles may be,” Hofmann told the marchers. “They are all members of our community in life and in death.” 

The 36th Homeless Memorial March and Service is scheduled for Dec. 17, 2020. 

Jesse Wiley (pictured) read aloud the names of 103 homeless, 69 formerly homeless and 18 advocates who died in 2019, with a candle lit for each person.

How to help

— Prepare and serve a meal in a shelter

— Advocate for affordable housing

— Donate money or supplies to support an organization that serves the homeless community

— Ask a legislator to invest in individuals who experience homelessness and efforts to end homelessness

— Extend a smile to people on the street 

Source: Minnesota Homeless Memorial March & Service

Memorial march participant Amy Hedberg volunteers at Simpson shelter. “It changes your perspective when you can sit down and have a conversation with someone,” she says.