SALT LAKE CITY — Bitter cold temperatures clamped down on Utah this week, which is a dangerous proposition for the many of the states homeless.
"It's a very lonely feeling to be out on the streets," said Vaughn Davis, who was homeless from 2006 until 2010. "Especially for me, it was worse during the holidays."
Fifty-two homeless people died on the streets this year in Utah. That's actually down from more than 60 last year. More than 16,000 people have spent at least one night homeless in our state.
So on Thursday, the longest night of the year, more than 100 people gathered in Pioneer Park as shivering temperatures set in. Advocates for the homeless, led by the Fourth Street Clinic Consumer Advisory Board, remembered those who died with a candlelight vigil.
They also united to raise awareness for permanent housing solutions.
"I was out here on some of the coldest nights of the year," said Russell Flowers, who spent a year and a half living on the streets of Salt Lake.
Now, he and Davis sit on the clinic's Consumer Advisory Board. They work with the clinic to help meet the needs of the homeless, and work with the homeless to encourage them to utilize the health services of the clinic and start on a path to permanent housing.
"I had to spend the night out here sleeping on benches, and (in) doorways, hoping and praying that I could go into a service station — anything to stay warm," Flowers said.
Sometimes, a cardboard box was the only insulation he had between himself and the cold ground.
"I don't know how I made it, I just prayed to God and He came through for me," Flowers said.
Members of the board read each of the 52 names of those who perished on the streets in Utah in 2012.
"They were needless deaths," Flowers said. "Some of them died laying on the sidewalk."
"These were people that we knew and loved, and that we tried to help," said Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for the homeless.
Vaughn Davis eventually got help through the clinic, and ended up in permanent housing. He calls the clinic "his savior" and now cherishes the chance to help others who live on the streets.
"Doing this, and doing outreaches throughout the community, I'm able to pay back what was given to me," he said, holding back tears of gratitude.
Advocates for the homeless said disease is 3 to 4 times more prevalent among the homeless. On average, a person living on the streets dies two or three decades earlier than those who have a home.
But in the last five years, Salt Lake moved 1,000 chronically homeless people off the streets and into one of several housing developments dedicated to housing the homeless.
"Once people are in housing, it is then easier to be able to help them with the counseling and the treatment," Atkinson said. " So, really our motto is 'housing first.'"
Similar vigils were held across the country Thursday night to raise awareness and help get people off the streets.