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Commemorating those killed by homelessness

FARGO -- On the longest night of the year, a group of pallbearers marched down Broadway to First Lutheran Church, carrying a white casket. There was no body inside the casket, but this was nevertheless a funeral service for the dozens of homeless...

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People assemble in downtown Fargo Wednesday night, Dec. 21, 2016, to take part in a walk to First Lutheran Church for a Homeless Persons Memorial Service. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

FARGO - On the longest night of the year, a group of pallbearers marched down Broadway to First Lutheran Church, carrying a white casket.

There was no body inside the casket, but this was nevertheless a funeral service for the dozens of homeless or formerly homeless Fargo-Moorhead residents who have died in recent years.

Lois Ustanko, who runs the faith community nursing program at Sanford Health, put together a list of the dead for National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day on Wednesday, Dec. 21. She was "very distressed" to count 133 people in the past six years, 31 from this year alone, she said during the church service that followed.

"As I put that list together, I thought each and every one of those people, someone's daughter, mother, brother, sister, uncle, someone leaving behind people that love them," she said.

According to homeless advocates, the rigors of life on the street have a lasting effect on health and those who have experienced it for a long time, even if they ultimately do find housing, often die at a much younger age than average.

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Anthony Birdsbill was the first on the list for this year. His obituary says he died in February at the age of 34 in a Minot hospital. At one time, he had been a boxer in Minnesota with three state championships under his belt.

The last name on the list was Lisa Howell, who died earlier this month at the age of 37 at Essentia Health in Fargo, according to her obituary.

"I don't know why God took her so early; she just had a baby," said Michael Brian Graham at the church service. He asked those gathered to say a special prayer for Howell and for another friend, Terry Johnson, who died around the same time.

A survey of data from several U.S. cities by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council in 2005 found the average age of death of people who have experienced homelessness ranged from 42 to 52. The national average that year was 77 years.

"Compared to the general population, people who are homeless are at greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. "They are also more often victims of violence, prior to and once homeless."

Many wept during the prayer service at First Lutheran. As the Rev. John Roberts of Recovery Church talked about how the dead lived on in the hearts their loved ones, a man who had been sniffling loudly in the audience yelled "Never left!" Overcome with emotion, he later left the room.

"So many of the individuals that have passed as a result of homelessness don't ever have the chance of a memorial service," said Jillian Struxness, an outreach specialist with the city's Gladys Ray Shelter. "It's a really nice way to raise awareness in the community but also to give currently or formerly homeless individuals a way to grieve."

Killed by homelessness

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Below is an incomplete list of homeless people in Fargo-Moorhead who died in 2016, including those who had found housing but suffered lasting harm because of their experience with homelessness. Homeless advocates issued the list to call attention, in part, to the shortened lifespan of homeless people.

Anthony Birdsbill

Bart Warner

Bob Schmidt

Brian Lunde

Callee Hagen

Cameron Critt

Chol Thon

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Dean Groves

Edward Wilhilte

Glen Gamer

John Leftbear

Joseph Merlin

Kenneth Covey

Kenneth Decouteau

Leslie Bachmeier

Loren Wright

Mark Miller

Michelle Two Hearts

Quintella Granger

Regan Pierce

Renee Myhra

Robbie Lass

Robert Frimanslund

Robert Vilas

Tammy Jones

Vincent Bontjes

Wendell Decouteau

Theodore Schuelke

Lisa Howell

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The Buffalo River Singers perform two selections, The Four Directions Prayer Song and The Honor Song, at the Homeless Persons Memorial Service Wednesday night, Dec. 21, 2016, at First Lutheran Church in Fargo. Each pinwheel on the table represents a local homeless individual who died this year. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

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