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Vigil honors 52 homeless Utahns who died in 2012

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 8:47 p.m. MST

Alex Simpson lights his father's candle at a vigil to remember homeless men and women who died during 2012 in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Fourth Street Clinic and the Salt Lake County Homeless Coordinating Council hosted the vigil at Pioneer Park.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The candlelight vigil conducted Thursday night in Pioneer Park to remember homeless men and women who died during 2012 was only about a half-hour long.

Yet, being out in the freezing cold for one evening was difficult, said homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson, "let alone for one night and for weeks and for months, even years."

Such conditions result in substantially higher rates of illness and shorter life spans among the homeless population, evidenced by the deaths of 52 men and women honored at the observance, she said.

"The truth is, homelessness is deadly. Without a home, people experience disease three to four times more frequently than those of us who have health care, housing and food; and they die an average of two to three decades earlier," Atkinson said.

Some 125 people paused to honor area homeless men and women who died during the past year at the annual vigil, conducted this year on winter's eve.

"It's hard to say that number (of people) as we all knew them. We knew them and we loved them. We knew what their goals and aspirations were. We regret they had to leave us far too early," Atkinson said.

Karl Westbrook was among members of the Fourth Street Clinic's consumer advisory board who read the names of the deceased. He ended his list with "my friend, Randy Smith."

The two men had lived and served on the resident board of Grace Mary Manor, an apartment complex that houses and provides supportive services to chronically homeless people. Westbrook was the president, while Smith, a veteran, "was my right hand man" as vice president.

Smith died about a month ago of kidney disease and diabetes. "I think about him every day," Westbrook said.

Among the 52 people recognized at the vigil, 18 were in housing at the time of their deaths, said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

The 10-year initiative to end chronic homelessness has resulted in "quantifiable outcomes," Atkinson said. Many people formerly living on the streets live in supported housing, where they are "safe, warm and many of them so much healthier than they were."

While the memorial was a somber occasion, Atkinson said all people and agencies that have partnered in sharply reducing chronic homelessness in Salt Lake City should celebrate the progress.

The vigil was hosted by Fourth Street Clinic's Consumer Advisory Board and the Salt Lake County Homeless Coordinating Council.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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