Record number of deaths in Denver’s homeless community attributed to opioid crisis
By Katelyn Skye Bennett
Last year saw the highest number of homeless deaths ever recorded in the Denver metro area—at least 231 people died while homeless in 2017. That number accounts for the dates of January 1 to November 28, a 35 percent increase from last year, where 171 names were read at the annual “We Will Remember” memorial vigil.
The actual amount of deaths is higher and unknown.
“There’s so many silent voices that are not accounted for. This is just a snapshot into what we’re experiencing in the community,” said Meredith Ritchie, communications manager at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Every December 21, the longest night of the year, the Coalition holds a ceremony on the steps of the Denver City and County Building to honor these people by speaking their names. The typically festive building silences its bright holiday lights for the duration of the event.
Last month, on the 28th remembrance ceremony, about 200 people came out, doubling the previous year despite the light flurries and below freezing temperatures. These friends, community members, and staff from the Coalition uttered “We will remember” after every name listed in the bulletin, plus at least six more called out by friends at the end.
Despite free hot chocolate and cookies and bundles of socks, hats, and gloves, the gravity of lives lost weighed on the attendees and performers alike. Sirens wailed ironically during the eulogy, and Aural Elixir’s voice, which wove beauty throughout the event, broke as she sang “Somewhere over the rainbow” post-name reading.
“I think we can speculate that the opioid epidemic—we’re not immune to it,” Ritchie said in an interview. Population growth may have impacted the high number of deaths as well.
Of the 92 names contributed by the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office, one-fifth, or 19 people, died from drug overdose. Of those deaths, 81 percent died of opioid overdoses John Parvensky, president of the Coalition, said at the memorial.
“It is, indeed, a call for justice,” he told the crowd.
Fifteen people died from heart disease, 12 from blunt and sharp force trauma, and five each from asphyxia, pneumonia, and COPD and lung disease.
Most people died in accidents or from natural causes, while seven percent of the deaths were known suicides, and close to 13 percent are still pending. Close to seventy of those lost were aged 40-69, and most were men.
“I wish this wasn’t a report I had give,” Ritchie said. “I wish we had all the answers so this report didn’t need to exist. One day we will.”
The “We Will Remember 2017” homeless death report cites the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and reiterates the significance of the opioid epidemic: “People experiencing homelessness ages 25 to 44 are nine times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than their household counterparts,” it says.
“Doc” was just one person lost to drugs. “He was on a spiritual journey that ended shortly,” his friend Juan Mata said at the vigil. “He ended up shooting up, overdosing.”
“He was a true character. He painted his nails and stuff like that,” Mata shared. They had known each other in Greeley until Doc passed away about six months ago.
“Just because somebody smokes weed, does drugs, or drinks doesn’t make them a bad person. There’s people that don’t do drugs that do worse things than we do,” Mata added. He saw two other friends die this year as well: one hung himself and another died drunk and perhaps overdosed.
In order to promote long-term solutions, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provides housing and health resources, including a free health clinic on Stout Street. They strive to be holistic and meet the needs of people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness. This includes servicing a Harm Reduction Action Center, which has saved 742 lives from May 2012 through the publishing of the Coalition’s most recent report, as well as Medication-Assisted Treatment for successful detoxing.
Laural Radmore has worked in housing services for the Coalition for a decade and knew over twenty of the people lost this year. “Every single name that we honored here tonight has their own story,” she said.
“Though yes, every name on that list experienced homelessness, every name on that list was so much more. That list is full of artists and thinkers and friends and neighbors and people’s children and brothers and sisters and parents.”
William Hillewaert was one of these individuals. “He was thoughtful and loving and kind and generous with this time and really had such a giving, loving heart that made him stand out from other humans,” said Radmore.
Jan World Turner was another. Radmore laughed as she described her. “Feisty. Feisty and fun to know, those are the words that I think of,” she said. “She had such an inner spirit and survivor spirit that you just rarely see in other people. She really wanted to do her own thing, and it was beautiful to see.” ■
We Remember: Denver’s Homeless Memorial
During a candlelight vigil last month, Denver mourned those who lived on the streets of Denver and passed away in 2017. We have printed their names here to honor their memories. An asterisk (*) was added to the names of VOICE vendors we lost last year.
Andy “Richey” Ablo
Mitchell Thomas Bassett
John Baszemore, III
Margaret “Peggy” Baugher
James Creed Buckman
Anthony “Tony” Burke
Roy Coleman, Jr.
Christian Shawn Donald
James L. Farmer, Jr.
Daniel O. Fike
William “Billy” Genoshe
Robert E. Gray
William “Bill” Hennecke
Maryann Louise Holko
Keith D. Johnson, Sr.
Tyrone R. Kelly
Steven Alan King
Walenty Klos, Jr.
Brandon Floyd Mason
Raymond Miller, III
Adolph Thomas Perea
Kevin W. Peters
Brett W. Rasor
Jose A. Roman, Jr.
Steven Douglas Scherer
James Slater, Sr.
Jan World Turner
Earl Twyman (2015)
Gemma Marie Walowen
David R. Westley
Susan Marie Whiting
Robert Earl Williams