BILLINGS — The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, but in the homeless community, it represents the longest night of the year. It's known as National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, and event organizers in Billings want the day to shed light on a growing issue.
"The need is higher. The desperation is greater. The addiction is more deadly," said Carmen Gonzalez with the HUB Mental Health Center. "We owe it to this community when we can admit there's a problem and say something is not right here."
Before Tuesday's ceremony on the Yellowstone County courthouse lawn, community reps gave out socks, gloves, and hand warmers to anyone who asked. It’s a helpful gesture, but plenty of hurdles remain to solve the epidemic.
Mainly, an affordable housing shortage.
In July 2020, Billings was ranked as the No. 1 emerging housing market by the Wall Street Journal. Median home prices rose 20 percent year over year, and a housing supply used to being stocked for months was frequently emptied within weeks.
"The housing side has definitely gotten worse," said Eric Basye, executive director of Community Leadership and Development, Inc.
The group is committed to improving the quality of life on Billings South Side. They’ve seen first-hand what the nation’s COVID-19 crisis has done to the local housing market.
"We’ve found that a number of properties that traditionally aren’t worth much money are worth much more money now," Basye said. "Those who are lower income, their options are more minimal."
That message was clear at Tuesday's event.
"Today we honor the memory of those who have died, and pay tribute to those without stable housing," said Crystal Freidrich, the program manager of Healthcare for the Homeless. "Today we highlight the need for this vulnerable segment of our society.”
Riverstone Health CEO John Felton was the final speaker. It was his decision to cancel the 2020 memorial due to COVID-19 concerns, and he wishes he could take that back.
"Canceling this remembrance seems like a mistake to me," Felton said. "In hindsight, the risk of spreading the virus was low, and I believe the risk was much smaller than the risk of forgetting that people die on our streets every year."