Near the corner of 5th and James, a woman dressed in head-to-toe black holds out flyers to a barrage of passersby. Many of them—busy people dressed in business attire, probably scuffling between work and lunch—decline the paper. Perhaps they think she’s selling something or pushing some sort of political agenda.
But for the few who accept the flier, they would see that this woman—along with the three others standing near her—isn’t selling anything at all. She’s memorializing the homeless people who died outside or due to violence in the last few weeks in King County.
The flyer reads:
Today, we stand to honor these not-forgotten people:
Scott Persons, age 53, died on May 20
Carlos Huaman, age 26, died on May 30
Douglas X. Smith, age 64, died on May 30
Dillon Phillip Gilbert, age 24, died on June 6
Willie “Bama” Tedder, age 55, died this week, (the exact date of death is unknown at the moment.)
The group, called Women in Black, has hosted these silent vigils since 2000. They do so every Wednesday after they’ve had a death confirmed, always at noon, and always on the front steps of the Seattle Municipal Court. Today, they say the vigil is dedicated to a homeless baby boy who died last month in a hospital.
According to King County Medical Examiner, the average age of death among homeless people in the county has decreased to 45 in 2017. And 36 out of the 57 homeless deaths recorded so far this year—or 63 percent—occurred outside of shelter or as a result of violence. Homicides are also disproportionately higher in the homeless community.
Anitra Freeman has been a member of Women in Black since its inception and was once homeless herself. She said the group hosts these vigils to memorialize those who’ve died, as well as cope with the sadness that comes from grappling with the deaths.
“It makes the grief survivable,” Freeman said of the vigils.
The King County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Richard Harruff works with Women in Black on a regular basis.
“They give recognition for the forgotten souls of our community and bring attention to the deaths that occur at a disproportionately high rate,” Harruff said.
In May, the 2017 Count Us In results were released. It revealed that volunteers counted 5,485 people living unsheltered on the streets, in parks, vehicles or encampments. Combined with the amount in shelters, 11,643 people experiencing homelessness were counted in King County.
The numbers represent a 21 percent jump from last year and a 47 percent increase from 2015’s count.
Women in Black members say now, more than ever, increased funding is needed for shelter and housing. The group openly supports the proposed income tax on high-income Seattleites.