About 13,000 people die living on the street every year in the U.S., including in small towns like Lewiston

click to enlarge About 13,000 people die living on the street every year in the U.S., including in small towns like Lewiston
Homelessness isn't just in big cities.

A gentle snow fell over the crowd as each name was read aloud.

Louis. Mary. Carson. Angel. Kevin. Ronald. Twenty-two names total. All of them died this year without a home, in Moscow, Lewiston and Clarkston.

For years now, larger cities across the country have held similar events to mourn people who died while homeless. In Spokane, the memorial takes place on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, and there are 144 names to read. There were 162 last year — the highest on record.

Nationwide, it's estimated that 13,000 people die on the streets every year. But last week's event is the first time such a memorial happened in Lewiston. Homelessness is often associated with large cities, but it's also a growing problem in rural areas like Lewiston, a point made clearer as Lewiston City Council members recently voted to create a special subcommittee dedicated to the issue.

Lisa. Bradley. Adam. David. Amanda. They were neighbors, parents, children, sisters and brothers, says Kelly Lanman, who works with CHAS Health, a nonprofit health care organization with clinics throughout Spokane County and the Lewis Clark Valley that organized the memorial.

Maybe they had an illness or injury that caused them to lose a job, Lanman says. Or a string of bad luck.

After the names were read, the crowd of about two dozen people gathered outside the Lewiston CHAS clinic stood for a moment of silence. Then they rang bells — to remember those lost and reaffirm their commitment to a world where nobody has to die on the street.

Roger. Frank. Pacifico. Claude. Mithra.

Candice Ketelsen, a provider at the Lewiston health center, notes that studies show that not having access to a reliable home increases the chances of early mortality by 75 percent. It lowers the average lifespan from 78 years to about 50.

After ringing the bells, the crowd of outreach and health care workers, politicians, community members and people struggling with homelessness drink coffee and eat corn chowder together.

Dan Johnson, the recently elected mayor of Lewiston, was there too. As he sipped a bowl of chowder, he explained that the city is trying to open an inclement weather shelter to keep people warm during the coming winter. They're making some progress, he says, but keep getting caught up with zoning and other bureaucratic hurdles.

"We have to work within our codes, but the need is today," Johnson says, echoing the frustrations commonly heard in Spokane and other larger cities.

Shanon. Charlotte. Thomas. Ron. Winette. Larry.

Austin Couch works at First Step 4 Life, a clean and sober living house in Lewiston. He didn't know any of the names on the list this year, but he remembers others. Friends and family who died outdoors because of addiction or medical problems. He has a tattoo on his arm dedicated to one of those friends.

Despite the somber reason for the event, Couch says he was glad to see the community come together.

"It sucks," he says, "but it's good to be able to celebrate life." ♦

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Nate Sanford

Nate Sanford is a staff writer for the Inlander covering Spokane City Hall and a variety of other news. He joined the paper in 2022 after graduating from Western Washington University. You can reach him at [email protected]