At candlelight vigil, those who died while experiencing homelessness in 2023 are remembered

Forty-two people died in 2023 while experiencing or transitioning out of homelessness, according to community advocates and the Wichita Police Department.

by Stefania Lugli/The Journal and Celia Hack/KMUW

On the longest night of the year, Wichitans huddled into the gym at Guadalupe Clinic to honor the lives of those who died while experiencing homelessness in 2023. 

Forty-three tea lights burned in a corner of the room — a quiet tribute to the 42 identified people who died while homeless this year. One more candle represented the unknown. Occasionally, a soft murmur floated throughout the room as people bowed their heads in prayer. 

Some attendees came to the Dec. 21 memorial to honor the life of someone they knew, but several came despite no personal connection. They felt a duty to show up for a stranger who may not have felt such love upon their death. 

“These folks are passing away without anyone paying notice at all. This is to honor them, to acknowledge them,” said Kathy Bowles, an advocate for the homeless and registered nurse.

“Some made quite a huge impact on the lives of service providers and various other people that they knew. They’re somebody’s daughter, they’re somebody’s son, they’re somebody’s sister or brother. They were somebody. So they should still matter enough to have a service.” 

Pastor Rick Thornton, of Wichita, speaks to those attending the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day Service, at the Guadalupe Clinic, on December 21, 2023. The memorial has been held annually since 2006. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Bowles has helped with the local memorial service since 2006, when the Wichita Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness began organizing it. Nationwide, homeless memorials are held on the winter solstice as a stark reminder of the life-or-death weather to come.

Wichita’s program was organized by independent advocates like Bowles, members from different faith communities, services providers and the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team.

Wichita’s original group is no longer active. But Bowles and other advocates are committed to ensuring the annual return of the memorial — especially as they grieve more deaths in recent years.

“I think the very first year we had somewhere like around 13 or 14; we’ve had years where it’s been as little as nine or 10,” Bowles said. “… I tend to think, based on what I see on the streets, that the numbers have spiked in recent years.”

As advocates and police see the number of deaths — and rate of homelessness — tick up, Bowles and others who attend the service are more determined to ensure that the homeless’ humanity comes first.

One speaker, Darrell Patterson, delivered a eulogy on behalf of his lost friend Russell Jones. They grew up together, he said, meeting at a laundromat that Jones’ parents ran in the 1970s.

“Russell was probably one of the most skilled people when it came to laying tile, linoleum … he had a carpentry gift,” Patterson said at the service.

Unfortunately, Jones developed a substance use disorder, losing his home and wife before ending up homeless. Patterson and Jones went years without seeing one another until Patterson found him while ministering on the street. The friendship was rekindled. 

“We’d reach out to Russell and a lot of times, because of his situation, he always felt like was unworthy of that love, that attention and assistance,” Patterson said. “He could just never understand why people would want to help him win.”

Jones got better, Patterson said. He was a year sober and had just moved into a temporary apartment when he died.

“Even though Russell isn’t with us anymore, the love that Russell had within his heart he left behind,” Jones said. “All of us didn’t know each other, but now do because of Russell, and we’re all able to still help, network, encourage and lift up one another.

“Death by poverty”

Russell’s story was not the only tragedy. Friends, service providers and a police officer shared their memories of those who died this year. 

There was patient and generous James — who brought his dog every week to the ICT Street Team, a medical care provider. 

Marvin — always kind, and handy enough to fashion himself a bed and woodburning stove in the shed in which he lived.

Then there was Dene Lesure — cheekily known as Momma Dee.

Momma Dee loved her cat Boots, Marlboro Red 100’s, a hot cup of coffee and the TV show Hawaii Five-O, specifically Alex O’Loughlin. She also loved games — it didn’t matter which kind, she always played to the fullest extent.

Brant Graves eulogized Momma Dee at the memorial. He met her in 2012 while serving with God N’ Dogs, a group that serves hot dogs during a “tailgate party” he hosts every Thursday night at Third and Topeka for those experiencing homelessness. 

“She saw herself as a caring and street-smart lady who was willing to help anybody as soon as she saw fit. Sometimes that help would come as a hug. Sometimes that help would come as a shouting match across a crowded parking lot,” Graves said during the memorial, sparking laughs from the crowd. 

Momma Dee “fell through the cracks of the system” and was homeless for years, Graves said. 

“She was capable enough, but she didn’t get a lot of the social work that was available to her sometimes,” he said. “She had mental illness that made it hard for her. She didn’t have impulse control, so she would sometimes get set up with services and then not follow through or break an agreement and end up back out on the street.”

Graves’ God N’ Dogs provides a stable community for the homeless in the area. Besides providing food and relationships, Graves often holds onto paperwork for the friends he makes, such as Momma Dee. 

Momma Dee and Graves worked together to find her stable housing with other service providers, such as getting an officer of the Homeless Outreach Team to clear her panhandling tickets. 

Graves tried helping her with more personal things like how to budget and commit to her medication, but said her untreated bipolar disorder prevented her from keeping on track. As far as Graves knows, Momma Dee didn’t have a relationship with her family — a too-common occurrence for those on the streets. 

Momma Dee was in poor health by the time of her passing, having never fully recovered from a severe case of COVID and having barely any teeth due to most of them rotting. She formally died of respiratory arrest, but if you ask Graves, he’ll tell you that Momma Dee ultimately died “from poverty and mental illness.”

How the memorial collects names

Advocates, service providers and the Homeless Outreach Team lean on one another to come up with the number of homeless people who die each year, according to Bowles and Officer Nate Schwiethale of the Homeless Outreach Team. 

Bowles and Schwiethale acknowledge it’s an imperfect recording system.

“It’s been this way for pretty much the whole time,” Bowles said. “I don’t think that we ever rely specifically on a list from the police department or from the city. We rely on other people. That’s part of why you collaborate.” 

Bowles said service providers like shelters or local hospitals notify her when a homeless person dies. The HOT team also works with a data analysis staff member at the end of the year to identify cases of individuals who were found deceased and were likely homeless. 

Clues include an address listed at a homeless shelter or “Homeless U.S.A.”, though the department relies on visual cues to determine the deceased’s housing status if they don’t have an identification.

While names can be collected, the cause of death is trickier to confirm. Bowles said one person died while hospitalized with cancer, one died after being hit by a car and some were found deceased in an encampment. According to Schwiethale, two other people died of a suspected overdose at Union Rescue Mission, a men’s shelter.

Collecting the data of how many people die while experiencing homelessness is tricky. There is no formal procedure for doing so, so advocates and Wichita police collaborate to make an imperfect list every year. However, they don’t always know what the cause of death was. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Bowles acknowledges substance abuse as a major issue among those experiencing homelessness. But she says it’s not the only one.

“It’s easy to sweep everything into the pile of, ‘Oh, they’re all overdoses, so let’s just simply look at the substance abuse issue,’ but then nobody looks at the big picture,” Bowles said.  

“Why are so many people dependent upon drugs? Why are there so many people on the street with severe, persistent mental illness issues? Why are those who are schizophrenic and bipolar not on meds? Why aren’t we addressing the whole picture?”

“I wish people would hear their backstories”

Schwiethale said his involvement in the memorial is important to him as both a first responder and a friend to the homeless community. 

“Being out here on the streets as a first responder, I’m oftentimes the first one to respond and I find someone I’ve been working with, or I was even friends with, deceased. It’s really tough,” he said.

Like Marvin, whom the HOT team found living in a shed behind a condemned house. Schwiethale recorded a video eulogy in his memory. 

“He had given up hope in life,” Schwiethale said before the service. “He was disabled, in poor health, appeared to be a little bit low-functioning. So we started working with him, until we let the housing department take over (to get him into housing).”

But it turned out that Marvin lacked identification, Schwiethale said. A year after the two initially connected, Schwiethale said Marvin still hadn’t made it into housing because of this barrier. His health issues were getting worse.

“Before we could get him housed, he ended up passing away,” Schwiethale said. “That was really tough, just knowing that something as simple as getting an ID was the barrier. He was such a nice guy and was willing to work with us to get some help.” 

The annual homeless memorial not only reflects on the life lost, but grieves over the potential each person’s path had. If they were only given more time. 

For Shayla Duart, the memorial also brings a memory of shock. She attended her first one years ago, when Schwiethale was reading a list of names of those deceased and he suddenly read her cousin’s. 

Jennifer Moellinger Garrison, of Passageways speaks to the crowd during the memorial service. Dozens were in attendance to ensure that those that died while experiencing homelessness are remembered for their humanity — rather than becoming a statistic. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Duart knew her cousin, Jason, was dead. She had no idea he was homeless when it happened. 

“I was in complete shock,” she said. “You don’t realize that your family could be homeless because you want better for them. So it was just shocking for me that Officer Nate knew about him and I didn’t. 

“Then he said they found him under a bridge. Like, ‘Oh, my god.’ You never want to hear something like that.”

She wasn’t close to Jason, but the emotional blow reminded her that each person who dies while experiencing homelessness is just that — a person, with a family, who was a little kid once, too. 

Duart is now an advocate for the homeless, frequently doing outreach with her mother to provide food, resources and company to those living in encampments. Every time she sees a homeless person, she thinks of Jason. 

“I know a lot of people see someone on the street and go, ‘Well, they’re an alcoholic or a drug addict.’ No. There’s so much more,” she said. 

“Some people pass away by freezing to death, some truly struggle with addiction, others die because they’re sick and can’t afford medical treatment.

“I wish people would hear their backstories. I think people would be more understanding.”

As the memorial concludes, Pastor Rick Thornton stands at the foot of the room and begins reading the names of each person that passed: Marvin… Momma Dee… Russell Jones… and 39 more. A volunteer blows a candle out after each name, extinguishing the flame. 

After the names are read, an informal choir forms; attendees sing “Amazing Grace,” reading the words off the back of their programs. A compilation of voices rising together to uplift the memory of those who died homeless and, possibly, nameless.

A painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe watches over the somber crowd, her hands together in prayer.

This article was co-reported by The Journal and KMUW as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative (WJC). The WJC is a partnership of 11 media and community partners, including KMUW. The WJC is embarking on 18 months of dedicated coverage to shed light on the pressing issue of affordable housing in Wichita.