Tonight, as they traditionally do on the longest night of the year, people who are homeless, along with their family members and advocates, will hold a candlelight vigil for those who died while experiencing homelessness in Baltimore.
This year’s 62% spike in homeless deaths in the city, according to the staff at Health Care for the Homeless, will come as an additional sad element of this evening’s ceremony.
“It’s usually around 100, but for 2016, this past year, it’s 165. That’s really unprecedented,” said Molly Rath, a spokesperson for the group, one of several organizing the event.
Here are the totals, derived from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and service providers, for the last five years:
• 2016: 165 deaths
• 2015: 102 deaths
• 2014: 101 deaths
• 2013: 104 deaths
• 2012: 104 deaths
Asked the reason for the sharp increase, Rath said, “It’s hard to pinpoint.”
“Are we getting better at gathering names? Perhaps,” she said. “But the more likely answer lies in the clear connection between homelessness and morbidity.”
Dying near City Hall
In choosing locations for these annual vigils, organizers have occasionally sought to make a particularly pointed statement about the issue. Last year, for instance, they chose the strip of grass on the side of Interstate-83 where the city planted thorny bushes to discourage encampments.
The names of people who died were hung near each one. Amid city policies many advocates found needlessly harsh, a representative reading a proclamation from then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was booed.
Tonight’s event takes place at 4:30 p.m. on War Memorial Plaza, and Mayor Catherine Pugh is scheduled to attend.
It’s the location right in front of City Hall where a homeless man named Lawrence Alexander was found dead four days after Pugh was sworn in.
There are balloons and a stuffed-animal memorial next to the Fayette Street bus stop where the 54-year-old died of exposure.
Pugh has said shelter space was available that night. Her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, said city officials are still trying to determine precisely what interactions city agencies or service providers may have had with Alexander before his death.
His passing in such a symbolic spot will surely be a touch-point tonight, as all those lost in 2016 are remembered and advocates press the new administration for help in solving the crisis.