A year ago, Paul Gabrielson stood before dozens of people and a sea of candlelight, mourning the deaths of two close friends who, like himself, were homeless.

"We're all Americans, and we all deserve to be free," Gabrielson told the crowd. "I'm trying to say we all deserve to stay alive."

This year, Gabrielson was among those being mourned at the annual Longest Night vigil behind Bijou House, a sober living home.

His name was called out along with the names of dozens of others who died in the past year as a result of homelessness. Just like last year, it came on the longest night of the year, when the struggle for survival and the first light of dawn can seem like an eternity.

Some of them died while sleeping on the streets, in camps or crossing the street. Others died after having finally moved into an apartment — only to have their weathered bodies fail after years spent living outside or in shelters.

Just like Gabrielson. On Dec. 6, after having spent years homeless, he moved into his first apartment supplied by the local Housing First program and the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, a coalition focused on addressing homelessness.

He died two days later, his friends said, of a heart-related issue. He was 50.

Debbie Mitguard, director of volunteer engagement at Westside CARES, said the community needed to learn from Gabrielson's death.

"Be careful to paint people with a broad brush," Mitguard said. "They're so much more than labels. They're so much more than the word 'homeless.' They're very complicated, just like the rest of us."

Gabrielson wasn't a saint, and that's OK, his friends said Friday. He worked hard over the last several months to finally get an apartment. 

"He was hopeful — he had plans and was going to go back to school," Mitguard said. "When his friends died last year, he was so shocked. He didn't want to be one of the statistics."

His name was among more than 30 called — each followed by the words "we remember." 

Among them was Robert Heller — another man who attended last year's vigil and mourned the death of a friend. He died Jan. 19, while living in a transitional housing program after having been homeless off-and-on for years. He was 54.

Raymond Maez, 22, was shot to death in late November inside a tent at a homeless camp near Interstate 25 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Bypass. No arrests have been announced, and police have released few details about the killing.

Michael Montano, 57, was among eight homeless pedestrians killed by vehicles on Colorado Springs streets this year, according to police.

They include three people who died at one southeast intersection, South Academy and Astrozon boulevards. Two others died near the Springs Rescue Mission's campus, on the southern edge of downtown.

Understanding the true death toll of homelessness every year is extremely difficult, advocates say. 

Often without so much as a mailing address or an ID — a fact often owed to high rates of theft in the city's homeless encampments — people living homeless often die in relative anonymity. And they die young.

Studies have shown that people experiencing homelessness live roughly 30 years less than people who sleep in apartments or houses. And that's no surprise to homeless advocates here in Colorado Springs.

The extreme toll of living in the elements — subfreezing temperatures, snow and the ever-present threat of frostbite — can snatch years from someone's life. Poor nutrition, difficulties accessing health care and substance abuse further stacks the odds against them. Some people die by overdose. Others, by suicide.

"Homelessness shortens your life," said Steve Handen, an advocate who helped lead the vigil. "It impacts all of your systems."

For the mourners on Friday night, the sound of Gabrielson's name begged for an answer. How, some asked, could the community keep more names from being read next December?

"We're not doing enough to save lives like Paul," said Kristy Milligan, CEO of Westside CARES.

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