A colleague told me last year they have had more unhoused clients pass away than they had been able to help secure housing. The thought chills me, as I realize the same is true in my own career. In 2020, nearly 8,000 unhoused people died in cars, tents, shelters and in the streets across the U.S. Most of those deaths were preventable.
Across every age group, unhoused persons are three times more likely to die than the general population and experience illnesses at rates three to six times higher. By any measure, unhoused people live precarious lives. National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is commemorated every year on Dec. 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, to honor the lives of unhoused people who passed away too soon.
I write this year to honor the lives of two of my unhoused clients who passed away last year, Ricky Vickery and Micki Holmes, and to share some reflections about my relationship with Ricky, with whom I was particularly close. I met Ricky more than three years ago while developing a lawsuit to challenge the practice, in Montgomery, Alabama, of ticketing and arresting unhoused people who ask for help.
Ricky had been ticketed or jailed about 15 times for holding signs that said things like “Homeless, Anything Helps” and “God Bless You.” A year after his passing, I am still processing his death. Ricky confounded people’s perceptions of unhoused people (including, and perhaps especially, my own).
Many people looked at Ricky with scorn, projecting onto him every negative stereotype about homelessness. He once told me about a person who rolled down his window, pretended to hand him a sandwich and then drove away while eating it and laughing. But Ricky also confounded those who looked at him with pity or wanted to help him.
Ricky didn’t view himself as fallen from grace. In this video: Raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Ricky Vickery was homeless off and on after graduating high school in 1981. Vickery shares his experiences being unhoused, such as the “hard stares” from people who would ask why he didn’t just get a job.
“They don’t even know you,” he says. “They don’t even know if you’re capable.” He once spoke to a reporter who tried to mine his life for an explanation: Divorce? Disability? Illness? Addiction? She wanted to explain his life away. He rejected those explanations quietly and matter-of-factly.
Ricky did not want to go to a shelter. He did not want treatment. He did not need anger management. Church was not for him. He did not want therapy. No, he did not need help writing a resume. Ricky was homeless, but he resisted being an object of pity or well-meaning efforts to “fix” him. The ‘bando’ One of my favorite memories of Ricky involved picking him up from a gas station after he had spent a month in the Etowah County, Alabama, jail.
He had been arrested on a failure-to-appear warrant after flagging down a police officer for a ride. The ticket was 20 years old. I called my colleague, Ellen Degnan: “Do you want to pick Ricky up from the jail together?” Ricky was so excited when we arrived. Another man in the jail had told him that we would not show up.
“You don’t know these lawyers,” he said. When we arrived at the “bando” (abandoned house) where he was staying, Ricky shared what he had purchased with some emergency funds that a local nonprofit had given to him. Ricky was thrilled that nothing had been stolen during the month he had been in jail.
The lock that he purchased was still on the bando. So was the small grill, still sitting on the front porch. And the remainder of his funds were still in the ground, where he had buried them for safekeeping. Ricky showed us the Taser that he had purchased for his safety. I jumped as it sparked, lighting up the sky.
He was so pleased to see his few belongings safely in one place that he turned up his small boombox (with disco lights) – as if to announce a party in honor of his return. Neighbor Ricky made me feel more connected to Alabama. He was not just my client, but my neighbor. He held a sign asking for help about five minutes from my house and slept in abandoned houses nearby. “Can you tell Ricky to call me if you see him?” I asked my partner, Mendel, on many occasions, as he left for work.
Not five minutes later, Ricky would call me. My partner had flagged him down, as Ricky rode his small, blue bike down Ann Street, the tail of his brown mullet flapping in the wind. And when my partner locked his own keys in his car, he flagged down another client, Jonathan Singleton, this time to ask for help himself.
“Do you have Micah’s number?” Mendel asked Jonathan. He sure did. And here was Jonathan – my unhoused client, my neighbor, for whom I care deeply – handing over his phone so that my partner could call me for a ride. Freedom and dignity Ricky believed in something much more radical than charity.
He did not have the words for it, but he wanted a universal basic income that did not depend on labor. In the absence of a guaranteed income, he asked people to give a few dollars that would facilitate what our government would not: a small, humble living. Although we often discuss homelessness through the lens of charity, research shows that what Ricky wanted works.
During the pandemic, the expansion of the child tax credit – a series of monthly checks to most families with children – reduced child poverty by 36%, an unprecedented poverty reduction. Thirty-five percent of unhoused people secured permanent housing in a San Francisco pilot program that gave $500 in guaranteed monthly income.
Similar programs are being piloted in Denver and other cities throughout the country. We often frame our clients’ lives through the help they need, and they often need it. But Ricky was skeptical of the strings attached to that help. Ricky did not want to be homeless, but he also valued his own freedom and dignity – two conditions too often taken for granted when thinking about what unhoused people need. Ricky knew better than anyone what he needed for his own life.
He lived it. And so, as we commemorate National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, I’ll end with Ricky’s own words from an op-ed he published in The Montgomery Advertiser last year: “If the city wants to know how to help people who panhandle and are homeless, they should talk with us instead of talking about us.
They could organize dinners at convenient locations, like the Salvation Army by Highland Avenue and Ann Street, and ask us what we think about their policy ideas. People would show up if the city leaders got the word out and proved that they were trustworthy and not people to be feared. That may take some time because we’ve often been treated like we’re less than human, scum, or criminals.
We’re not. We’re your neighbors, your childhood friends, and people who have fallen on hard times. “If the city earns our trust, we could help them see what they’re missing, and that’d benefit us both. We’d remind city leaders that there aren’t enough places to get a free meal and hardly anywhere to shower or use the bathroom.
That homeless people with addiction have basically nowhere to go for treatment in Montgomery. The waitlist for the outpatient Chemical Addictions Program is months long. That you can go to the ER if you get sick, but you’ll owe for it if you have anything the hospital can place a lien on. That the document requirements and fees make it nearly impossible to get a state ID, and without an ID you can’t rent a motel room or even get admitted to a homeless shelter.
And that some people, like me, just want to be left in peace to make our own way. “As is my right.” May you have the peace and freedom you deeply deserve, Ricky, as we commemorate your life – and the lives of the thousands of unhoused people who passed away too soon – on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Micah West is a senior staff attorney in the SPLC’s Economic Justice Practice Group. Picture at top: The SPLC represented Ricky Vickery in a lawsuit against Montgomery, Alabama, that challenged the city's practice of fining or jailing people for panhandling.
The suit was settled in 2020.