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'Nobody died in vain' | Quad City advocates gather to remember homeless that died in 2021

On the 'longest night' of the year, community members held an honorary memorial. But advocates warn the pandemic is deepening housing insecurity.

DAVENPORT, Iowa — On Tuesday, Dec. 21, advocates and representatives from the Quad Cities Shelter & Transitional Housing Council gathered for a memorial in honor of all the lives lost while the person was experiencing homelessness in 2021. 

As the annual event marked its 31st year, there were warnings that, even after nearly two years of the pandemic, Covid's impact on homeless populations might only be growing. 

The memorial was held on the winter solstice, known as the shortest day of the year, as well as the longest night. Community members met at 8 a.m. for a convocation, songs, poems and prayers. 

"We believe it's important that nobody died in vain," said Bob Davis, assistant president of the STHC. "A lot of times they're just gone and no one even realizes that they're gone." 

During the service, 21 names were read aloud, as the crowd intoned, "we remember you." As the list continued (Terry W., Albert B., Tyreese D., and other names continued to be read), black socks were laid out: one pair for each person. 

"A lot of times, our homeless population don't have family or aren't connected to family," Davis said. "This allows us that time to reflect back on them." 

A donation table was also set up, collecting piles of blankets, hats, coats, mittens and more. All are items that one local shelter, run by Humility Homes & Services, say are in desperately short supply. 

Humility's emergency winter shelter opened for the year on Dec. 1 and will run through Apr. 15. 

Located on West 5th Street in Davenport, the shelter underwent a basement-renovation, and can now house around 140 people each night. 

Right now, staff say they typically see 100 to 115 people every evening, and expect that number to climb as temperatures continue to drop. 

"We don't turn anyone away at any time of the day," said Sarah Wells, operation supervisor of the shelter. "They can come in the middle of the night, they can come during the day, we don't turn anyone away." 

Since March 2021, the shelter has partnered with the health department to provide weekly vaccinations for the area's homeless population. Both the Johnson & Johnson shot, as well as boosters, flu shots and HIV testing are available on Thursdays, but Wells says they're not required. 

"Obviously we can't force the homeless population to be vaccinated but we are highly encouraging it," Wells said. "We haven't had any pushback from them. I mean, they've been very wanting to get vaccinated." 

It's unclear exactly how many people are experiencing homelessness in the Quad Cities at the moment. A local 'count' is conducted each February. 

But there are concerns the pandemic is only becoming a worsening problem for housing stability. 

"If you weren't experiencing housing instability already, the pandemic has really thrown a lot of people into housing instability. Perhaps not homelessness, but in a position where they could be at risk or become homeless," said Leslie Kilgannon, who runs the Quad Cities Housing Council and is a member of STHC. 

She says after two years of lost jobs, lost wages, and a lifted moratorium, this winter could be especially foreboding. 

"We're trepidatious about what comes this winter, whether we're going to see more homeless persons and more people who traditionally haven't experienced homelessness or housing instability," Kilgannon said. "They're going to be in a world of hurt. We're all pretty nervous about it; hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."

But as the region enters the coldest months of the year, she says the fight now must turn toward affordable housing, and away from complacency. 

"We can solve homelessness. We have to have the will as a community, governments and other stakeholders," Kilgannon said. "We don't have to tolerate this. People don't have to die. I hope people will be motivated to give generously, help where they can, but also talk to their decision makers and say we need more resources for affordable housing and direct assistance."