Organizations hold annual longest night memorial

The Longest Night
Posted at 9:17 AM, Dec 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-22 16:58:11-05

HELENA — Those who died this past year while homeless in Helena were remembered at the longest night memorial Thursday evening.

According to the National Health Care and Homeless Council, the homeless population has a higher rate of illness and death roughly 12 years before the general U.S. Population.

The ceremony was put on by Good Samaritan Ministries, The Friendship Center, United Way of Lewis and Clark County, and YWCA Helena.

“The folks that live on the streets here in Helena, most of them are from here. They are not homeless because their home is Helena. They are experiencing 'houselessness',” said Our Place Street Outreach Coordinator Mark Nay.

Roughly 50 people met at Women’s Park, lighting nine candles for the nine people who died this year while unsheltered in Helena.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said in 2021 Montana had 1,168 homeless individuals on any given night, and in 2022 that number increased by over 400 individuals.

Those who are unsheltered frequently have a difficult time accessing resources like health care, which can cause long-term negative health effects.

“The reason that many of these individuals died is something simply that we can solve. We can solve sheltering and 'houselessness' in Helena and in Lewis and Clark County,” said Jenifer Gursky, the Executive Director of YWCA Helena.

This year, in addition to candle lighting, each attendee was given a purple ribbon to wear, which is the color representing homelessness.

Lit candles at memorial

Gursky said, “We’re really hoping that folks wear that and remember. Remember that the folks in the blankets that they see downtown or the encampments that they see towards the edges of our city and our county, those are people with names that their mama’s gave them.”

Of those being remembered at the ceremony was Anthony Simmons, who advocates say was known for more than just his homelessness.

“Anthony has a mother. He has a brother and a sister. And just like eight other human beings who passed away in our community, they all have a favorite food and they probably all have a favorite singer, and they probably all have a favorite movie. They have families,” said Nay, who once lived in a shelter with Simmons.

Previously, city commissioners have been invited to speak at the memorial, but that was not the case this year.

“We decided to take a step back from folks who have a platform to speak and have an opportunity to make changes and center around the community voice and a community that really is calling for something to change,” Gursky said.

Watch MTN's full interview with Sheriff Leo Dutton about his department's investigation of deaths where homelessness was a contributing factor:

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff discusses homeless deaths his agency has responded to