Memorial in downtown Edmonton mourns those who died due to homelessness

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Memorial in downtown Edmonton mourns those who died due to homelessness
Homelessness can have a deadly cost and on Wednesday, the lives of hundreds of people who have died while living on Edmonton's streets were honoured. It's a somber tradition that goes back to 2006 and as Nicole Stillger explains, it highlights a stark reality in the city – Jun 15, 2022

Dozens of people gathered at Edmonton’s Homeless Memorial Plaza Wednesday afternoon to mourn those who died due to homelessness between 2019 and 2021.

It’s a sombre tradition that goes back to 2006 and highlights a stark reality in the city.

The annual service was paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s organized by the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH).

“(It’s) a chance to recognize that there are people in our society that aren’t so lucky,” said Susan Watson, chairperson of the Homeless Memorial Committee for the ECOHH.

The organization estimates over the last three years, 453 people died due to homelessness.

“It’s important to remember those people and who knew those people to give them a chance grieve and recognize them as well,” Watson said.

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David Johnson was at the service Wednesday. While he has adequate housing now, he said not long ago it was a different situation.

“COVID hit and I was in a rooming house and there was a lot of cockroaches, a lot of problems,” he explained.

After Johnson left, he found himself in several other shelters.

“It was challenging —challenging people, challenging behaviour, challenging situations,” he recalled.

READ MORE: City looking at different options to address increase in homelessness in Edmonton

According to the ECOHH, over the past 17 years, 1,255 identified people have died. It calls homelessness a significant factor, but in many cases not the direct cause of death, noting weather and assaults, for example, can also play a role. However, according to the ECOHH, had these people had adequate housing, the outcome may have been different.

“I’ve been dealing with homelessness for many years in my career before I retired, and unfortunately it’s not getting better, it seems to be getting worse,” Watson explained.

The coalition noted prior to 2016, about 50 people experiencing homelessness died every year.

Last year, 222 people died.

Organizers said they don’t know all the reasons for the increase, but struggles caused by the pandemic were likely contributing factors.

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They want the memorial to serve as a call to action.

“I would like to see everyone housed with appropriate housing,” Watson said.

“For some people, that means a lot of support — not just a roof over their head — but support to help them maintain housing. Because if they’ve been homeless for many years, you can’t just move into a house without having people support you and helping you through that.”

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