Dying On The Streets

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.” ■

Laurel Radmore remembers a friend who died in the past year at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless 28th Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil. Radmore is the Director of Residential Services for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. (Credit: Giles Clasen)

Laurel Radmore remembers a friend who died in the past year at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless 28th Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil. Radmore is the Director of Residential Services for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. (Credit: Giles Clasen)

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.

Kerry Abbot

Andy “Richey” Ablo

Sayer Addington

Stephen Albritton

Harrell Alexander

William Anderson

Vincent Aragon

Joe Arellano

Cecil Arnold

Sharon Baker

Gary Ballast

Michael Barela

Desmond Barros

Mitchell Thomas Bassett

John Baszemore, III

Margaret “Peggy” Baugher

Matthew Bellinger

Scott Bendik

Beverly Beresford

Grace Borquez

Michael Bozzo

Leniqua Brown

James Creed Buckman

Luthrean Buckman

Anthony “Tony” Burke

Tancil Caldwell

Willie Caldwell

Dean Carr

Gail Charters

Daniel Chavez

Seth Chavez

Randal Christensen

Roy Coleman, Jr.

Eddie Collins

William Cosper

Gregory Coy

Kim Criddle

Anita Crowe

Loretta Cullinane

James Davis

Larry Davis

Cameron Day

Natashia Dickerson

Jake Dincola

Richard Dixon

Christian Shawn Donald

Clyde Epps

Gordon Everts

Ernest Fajardo

James L. Farmer, Jr.

John Ferentchak

Daniel O. Fike

John Floyd

Jeffrey Frye

Jorge Garcia

Alvin Garnier

Carmine Gasperetti

Suzanne Gatewood

William “Billy” Genoshe

Robert E. Gray

David Greening

Charles Grove

Ronald Grove

Steven Hall

Sue Hawkins

Michael Hays

William “Bill” Hennecke

Joe Herrera

William Hillewaert

Christopher Hinds

Qui Hoang

William Hogel

Maryann Louise Holko

Cynthia Holland

Vincent Hoyos

Dale Hurst

David Hysell

Armando Ibarra-Holguin

Raymond Ironwing

Michael Jackson

Stephen Jacobsen

Justice Jaramillo

Russell Jefferson

Matthew Jennings

Francis Jiron

Jerome Johnson

Keith D. Johnson, Sr.

Bruce Jones

Tammy Jones

Aquila Jones-Sor

Bruce Kadison

Lisa Kellers

Benny Kelley

Tyrone R. Kelly

Lisa Kennedy

Omar Khauldun

Steven Alan King

Walenty Klos, Jr.

Gloriacean Knight

Joshua Knight

Steven Kukula

Steve Lafore

Michael Lanford

Kevin Leonard

Lawrence Lester

Caleb Leyba

Eugene Likely

Sherwood Little

Jesus Lopez

Brian Lucero

Kimberly Macey

Andre Madison

Lee Madrid

Michael Maier

John Mandonado

Neva Marshall

James Martin

Timothy Martinez

Brandon Floyd Mason

Rhonda McCarthy

Gary McClaurin

Michael McConnell

Jason McCurry

Christian McDonald

Taylor McEown

Anthony McGuire

Randy Means

Patrick Mendell

Matthew Milius

Russell Miller

Raymond Miller, III

Jesse Minjarez

Angelina Montoya

Chris Moody

Melissa Moore

Richard Naranjo

Louis Neurauter

Joanne Nobles

Theresa Ocana

Mike O’Conner

Phillip Oertell

Robert Ornelas*

Gabriel Orozoco

Larry Oster

Joseph Ottenberg

William Owens

Anthony Pacheco

Tina Padilla

Andrew Parker

Adolph Thomas Perea

Karen Perreira

Kevin W. Peters

Brian Peterson

Steven Phillips

Noe Ponce

Robert Poor

James Praiswater

Amber Presson

Mark Pye

Gerald Quinn

Michael Quinn

Jesse Quintana

Brett W. Rasor

Jory Ray

Mark Reiser

Richard Reynolds

Charles Rice

Robin Riley

Aleczandria Robbinson

Lee Robinson

Anthony Rodriguez

Jose A. Roman, Jr.

Lawrence Ryals

Oswaldo Sabillon

Ralph Salazar

Raymond Sanchez

Steven Douglas Scherer

Steven Scherer

Steven Segobia

Howard Shaefer

Dawn Sharrow

Eunice Shije

Michael Siepp

Derrick Simmons

James Slater, Sr.

Horace Smith

Michael Smith

Vincent Solano

Jonathan Soper

Leslie Southern

Charles Stevens

Calob Stewart

Herman Stolz

Edgar Tafoya

Randy Todd

Roberto Torralba

John Trancoso

Lois Trujillo

Michael Tsark

Jan World Turner

Jeremy Turner

Earl Twyman (2015)

Steve Ulibarri

Frank Valdespino

David Vargas

Ramon Vega

Daniel Vicario

Benjamin Vigil

Chandlee Vigil

Ricky Vigil

Robert Vigil

Paul Vonderhoe

Daniel Waddell

Gemma Marie Walowen

Lloyd Washington

Shelby Weatherly

Luke Webb

David R. Westley

Philip Westmoreland

Susan Marie Whiting

Savannah Whitman

Stephen Wiles

Robert Earl Williams

Aricka Winchester

Shawn Winkler

Frank Winters

Mark Wouters*

Richard Wray

Rayland Yazzie

James Yorek

Steve Young