A vigil on December 21st acknowledges the passing of our neighbors who have died without a place to call home. Every year, during the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, Healthcare for the Homeless joins communities across the county in paying tribute to those who have lived without stable housing and have died, often from conditions directly related to homelessness.
Studies show a relationship between the lack of housing and increased mortality rates. Homeless people are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than the general population. According the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, the average life expectancy of people who are homeless is 20 to 30 years less than those who have housing. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day brings attention to the challenges of homelessness and the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.
According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, as many as 3.5 million Americans are homeless each year, and approximately 1,500 of those are Montanans. While the word “homeless” conjures up stereotypical images, the reality is more diverse. Children and families account for more than half of the homeless population nationwide. In a Billings survey in 2017, families with children accounted for more than 540 people who were homeless. During the last school year, 533 children in Billings Public Schools lacked stable housing.
The vast majority of those experiencing homelessness, have lost their housing because of a life-altering event or series of events that were unplanned and unexpected. Those events often stem from a job loss, domestic violence, or the death of a loved one. Other challenges include depression, untreated mental illness, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical disabilities. And, for those living in poverty without a safety net, a major event, such a vehicle breaking down or an extended illness, may prove insurmountable.
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The story of one woman I met illustrates some of those challenges. The woman and her husband lost their home in another state when he was unable to find a job after leaving the military due to PTSD. He served three tours of duty in Iraq. A serious accident depleted their savings and they returned to Billings to be near family. Car troubles, chronic health conditions, mental health challenges and conflicts with family members led to them "couch surfing" with friends or staying in motels or sleeping in their vehicle.
Fortunately, her story did not end in tragedy. With help from community services in Billings, she and her husband were able to treat their medical conditions, deal with mental health issues, gain employment and find affordable housing.
About 2,000 individuals were homeless in the Billings area at some point during the past year. The Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day honors the memory of those who have died and highlights the need for community resources such as housing, medical care and access to emergency services for this vulnerable segment of our society.