Eligah Was His Name

Elligah and case managers Emily, Renate, and Tim stand in front of the Capitol wearing jackets and paper hats cut into the shape of the Capitol building

In this article, our Housing Director, Krista Gibson, reflects on the recent loss of Eligah, one of our Permanent Supportive Housing residents, and the larger systems that contributed to an early death for him and so many others.

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The Value of a Life

In late October, I attended my fourth memorial service in as many months for participants in our housing programs. Eligah’s service was especially hard for me. I met him when I joined OSH as the emergency shelter manager in 2014. Eligah was staying in our shelter at the time, and I was fortunate to know him well.

Born and raised in the South, Eligah never shed his Southern accent, manners, or denim overalls in his migration north. Besides his ever present smile, I will always remember him seated in the shelter lobby cracking jokes with staff, building community simply with his presence. After a year in shelter, Eligah moved into his own apartment through our Permanent Supportive Housing program and continued to be a consistently positive member of our community until his death last week.

Every memorial service fills me with grief and sadness. I’ve been to too many. And I’m starting to get angry. My grief is compounded knowing the homelessness experienced by the people I’m mourning has contributed to their early deaths. Eligah ultimately succumbed to bone cancer at age 65.

“Every memorial service fills me with grief and sadness. I’ve been to too many. And I’m starting to get angry. My grief is compounded knowing the homelessness experienced by the people I’m mourning has contributed to their early deaths.”

Our Systems at Fault

While Eligah’s previous homelessness did not “directly” cause his death, we know that the extended trauma and intense stress of homelessness takes its toll on an individual’s body in many ways, even years after being housed. Minnesota boasts the third highest life expectancy in the nation with an average of over 80 years; yet, last year in Minnesota, the average age of death for individuals experiencing homelessness was 43 years. This number jumps to only 50 years for formerly homeless individuals like Eligah.

My grief is also turning to rage at systems that continually devalue human lives. After doing this work for more than a decade, it’s so clear to me that while each of our people has their own unique story, systemic failures are the real cause of the widespread – and increasing – homelessness we see today, not the individuals themselves.

“After doing this work for more than a decade, it’s so clear to me that while each of our people has their own unique story, systemic failures are the real cause of the widespread – and increasing – homelessness we see today, not the individuals themselves.”

Those who experience homelessness are up against insurmountable hurdles to reaching housing stability, including discrimination, complicated bureaucracies, and one of the nation’s tightest rental markets. Our healthcare, education, and justice systems all intersect and contribute to the problem of homelessness, mostly for those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

 

A Matter of Racial Justice

As we rightfully engage in broader public discussion about Black Lives Matter and systemic racism, it’s especially important that we acknowledge homelessness as a racial justice issue. If you have a BLM sign in your yard or have participated in anti-racist movements, you must also understand how homelessness disproportionately affects BIPOC communities.

In Minnesota, Black/African Americans comprise just 5% of our total population but nearly 40% of our homeless population. Similarly, Native Americans/American Indians make up less than 1% of our total state population but over 10% of our homeless population. This occurs not by accident but through a long history of intentionally racist housing policy. I highly recommend watching Owned: A Tale of Two Americasavailable free on Amazon Prime, to learn more about this.

“In Minnesota, Black/African Americans comprise just 5% of our total population but nearly 40% of our homeless population. Similarly, Native Americans/American Indians make up less than 1% of our total state population but over 10% of our homeless population.”

I don’t  claim to be an expert, but I know this: Homelessness kills people. And for Black lives to matter, homeless lives have to matter too. Eligah’s life mattered. Your advocacy and support allows us to do all we can to keep folks safe inside this winter. We’re especially working to maintain our shelter operations at the hotel until the spring as COVID-19 continues to rage.

I also invite all of you to attend this year’s virtual Annual Homeless Memorial on December 17th. OSH staff will be present to memorialize Eligah and all our losses this year. Help us bear witness to these lives that matter.

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