A memorial for Jessica Aldama and her baby occurred on Nov. 4, 2021, in Boulder. (Shay Castle/Boulder Beat)
Jessica Aldama will be remembered.
On Tuesday, Dec. 21, Americans will mourn en masse the thousands of deaths in which homelessness played a part this past year. It is National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. In cities across the country, a list of names will be read before the longest night of the year settles onto the streets.
Aldama’s name will be on one such list. She was found dead Oct. 11 by Boulder police officers along with her newborn daughter, who family and friends said she also planned to name Jessica.
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A memorial was held for Aldama, 33, and baby Jessica when the news of their deaths were still fresh in the community. Much that was unknown then remains unanswered today, as Boulder officials have declined to release more details until an autopsy is released.
That could come in January, according to a city spokesperson and information previously provided by the Boulder County coroner’s office.
All that is known about Aldama’s final days came from police accounts, filtered through a city spokesperson and the media. The Daily Camera reported that officers from the department’s Homeless Outreach Team encountered her twice before her death and took her to the People’s Clinic, a health care provider for low-income residents, each time.
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day events
When: 4 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 21
Where: Glen Huntington Bandshell, 1212 Canyon Blvd., Boulder
When: 5 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 21
Where: Denver City and County Building, 1437 Bannock St., Denver
Providers at the People’s Clinic referred the then-pregnant Aldama to Boulder Community Health, city spokeswoman Sarah Huntley told the Daily Camera. Officials from the People’s Clinic and BCH declined to confirm that account or answer further questions, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that protects patient information.
Even the initial police report from when Aldama’s body was found, typically a public document, is not being released.
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, we are unable to answer any questions or share any more information at this time,” a city spokesperson wrote in response to emailed questions.
Officials gave an update at the Nov. 9 Boulder City Council meeting to explain the lack of answers. The ongoing police investigation was cited, as was a state law that keeps confidential the identity of anyone who has received social services. City attorney Sandra Llanes also said Aldama’s family requested that her records be kept secret.
The initial release of information revealed that Aldama did receive some care. But, due to the subsequent lockdown, how much is unknown.
Being separated from your child does prevent a lot of women from wanting to seek services (or) enter shelters.
– Cathy Alderman, of Colorado Coalition for the Homeles
It’s unclear, for instance, if Aldama went to BCH after being referred there. Also undetermined is if she gave birth in the hospital and was then discharged onto the streets, or if her baby was born in the encampment where they were ultimately found.
BCH in August began a program with Boulder Shelter for the Homeless to assign a case manager to chronically unhoused individuals who visit the emergency room. Interim shelter director Spencer Downing declined to confirm whether Aldama had ever sought or received services, but did say BCH officials contacted the shelter to remind staff of HIPAA restrictions when media began making inquiries into Aldama’s death.
At the Nov. 4 memorial, Danielle Spieth, a friend of Aldama, speculated that Aldama’s past custody issues with her other children would have kept her from going to the hospital. Aldama feared that her baby would be taken away due to her unhoused status, Spieth said.
That is a common fear among unhoused pregnant women, according to Downing and other providers.
“Being separated from your child does prevent a lot of women from wanting to seek services (or) enter shelters,” said Cathy Alderman, of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “They’re always concerned about custody and who is going to report them. It’s certainly something that we hear often.”
‘More lives lost each year’
Boulder does have Mother House, a nonprofit specifically for vulnerable mothers and their children. Aldama did not seek its services, Mother House program director Shanan Collins said, and no one attempted to make a referral on her behalf.
Even if they had, Collins said, “we’re always full. We really need to expand services.”
The Lodge, an emergency shelter Mother House runs for women, nonbinary and transgender individuals, did later expand to 24/7 service, but providers say more is needed.
People living on the streets, like Aldama, have nowhere to shower, use the restroom, do laundry or just be indoors during the day aside from the local library, which was closed during most of the pandemic. Advocates and organizations have been pushing for a day shelter. Boulder County’s daytime shelter closed in 2017.
“I do not find honor in accepting this proclamation,” said Jen Livovich, accepting a Council declaration this week recognizing National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Livovich, herself formerly homeless, now runs a nonprofit organization dedicated to outreach, Feet Forward. (Disclosure: The author volunteers at Feet Forward’s weekly outreach events.)
“I feel a great loss as we remember more lives lost each year,” Livovich said. “The same lives we should be working to save.” She added, “I implore this city council to swiftly employ a low-barrier overflow emergency and day shelter to provide adequate, accessible spaces that will prevent further tragic and avoidable deaths.”
The past two years have seen a notable increase in the number of unhoused people dying in Boulder County. Last year, five people froze to death on the streets — double the average for the past seven years. There were also two reported fetal deaths among the unhoused from 2014 to 2020.
Denver’s numbers are also going up, according to the CCH’s Alderman: “We are seeing increases every year,” she said.
Through mid-November, 153 unhoused persons died in Denver, according to medical examiner’s records, including 22 in July alone. That’s compared to 160 for 2020 and 109 for 2019.
Added Alderman, “We know that’s an under-count, just like everything else in the homelessness space.”
‘Dying of homelessness’
Though most deaths are chalked up to natural causes, homelessness invariably played a role, said Scott Medina, director of community relations for Bridge House, a nonprofit that offers housing, employment and other services to people experiencing homelessness.
“They might have encountered health issues that were started or worsened” by their time on the streets, Medina said. “Homelessness is such a traumatic event, it has a lifetime of repercussions.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that these people died of homelessness.
– Scott Medina, of Bridge House
For that reason, the list of the dead that Bridge House compiles each year includes people who were part of the homeless community, even if they were housed at the time of their deaths.
Said Medina, “It’s not hyperbole to say that these people died of homelessness.”
“All of these deaths are ultimately an accumulative systemic failure,” said Katherine Cavanaugh with National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Every homeless death is someone we failed.”
Like Denver and Boulder, many communities are reporting increased mortality among the unhoused, Cavanaugh said. Those two counties are among the very few that track such things — just 68 jurisdictions formally review homeless mortality, according to Cavanaugh, representing 2% of U.S. counties.
For the most part in America, “how many people died, what did they die of, we don’t know,” Cavanaugh said. “The lack of data” is an obstacle to “evaluating our services and holding ourselves accountable.”
The Council has lobbied for mandatory reporting, something New York City passed into law. Ideally it would be tied to funding so that there is an incentive for local governments to identify gaps in the system with fatal consequences, advocates say.
Cavanaugh acknowledged that privacy concerns are a consideration. Municipalities are figuring ways around that, reporting numbers in aggregate along with information about what services were offered or received.
“There’s a lot more value in making this data as public as possible,” she said.
Denver’s Alderman has dealt with family members who were unaware of their relative’s passing or upset at their inclusion in the annual program. “But we also had many, many more family and friends reach out to us and thank us for providing that.”
“It’s a critical factor in determining how to use resources,” Alderman said. “By not reporting it at all, I don’t think we’re honoring the people who have passed away.”
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