SAN JOSE – Activists turned the square in front of the county government building into a mock cemetery on Monday and erected 196 foam tombstones to raise awareness of the growing number of homeless people dying on the streets of Santa Clara county.
Typically a place where people go to apply for a passport or look up a property deed, McEntee Plaza on West Hedding Street one day became a notable tribute to the homeless crisis in the area.
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Each headstone was marked with the name and age of a person who died without a home in the county from December 1, 2019 to November 30, 2020. The death toll was 22% higher than last year’s memorial – a disturbing trend activist say underscores the need for city and district leaders to do more.
“Each of these tombstones is calling out to us. Not just to remember them, not just to give their names – although this is a good start in a society that has done its best to erase them from our collective memories, ”said Sandy Perry, organizer of Affordable Santa Clara County’s Housing Network and an Outreach Minister at CHAM Deliverance Ministry. “They scream with the old adage that it doesn’t grieve. To organize.”
Mortality rates are rising in homeless communities in the Bay Area. Alameda County had 40% more deaths in the first nine months of 2020 than in the same time last year. San Francisco saw a staggering 123% increase. The people behind these numbers died from causes that ranged from overdoses, alcoholism, and heart disease to pneumonia and hypothermia.
Experts blame a variety of factors for the surge, including improved access to fentanyl and a growing number of homeless people. And although COVID-19 caused only a handful of deaths in the Bay Area homeless community this year, doctors say the pandemics have had a negative impact on the health of the indigenous people, making it difficult for them to access health care, food, shelter and others Necessities.
However, experts believe that many of these deaths could have been prevented had it not been for the homeless victims and if there had been more housing, shelter and warmth centers to keep them out of the cold and the dangers of the streets.
The oldest person to lose this year was 80 years old. The youngest was an infant – a young boy surnamed Barraza who died with methamphetamine in his system. Of the 196 lives lost, 105 were black people and 87 were seniors.
“This is clearly a flaw in the system,” said Shaunn Cartwright, an Unhoused Response Group volunteer. “If our death rate increases 22% in a year and we have all these dead seniors, this system will fail. And that’s the bottom line. “
In the past five years, the number of tombstones has increased by more than 200%.
Two of the symbolic headstones this year belonged to people killed in a stab attack last month at a Grace Baptist Church homeless shelter in downtown San Jose – 55-year-old Kimberly Fial and 45-year-old John “J Dubb” Paulson. Both were staying at the shelter at the time of the attack, and Fial was volunteering there and helping look after other guests.
Volunteers were at the church painting the tombstones used for Monday’s event hours before the murders.
The Grace Baptist Shelter had to close for a few weeks but reopened its doors last week, said Pastor Dave Robinson. The church is stepping up its security measures – hiring new staff and screening guests who come in with metal detector wands. But the return to business has been peaceful so far, Robinson said.
On Monday, the seventh year, activists held the annual vigil sponsored by the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, HomeFirst, Grace Baptist Church and several other groups. This year, a virtual component was broadcast on YouTube that was broadcast due to mandates for social distancing from pandemics.
For RJ Ramsey, who is a volunteer with the Unhoused Response Group, the event on Monday was personal. Ramsey, who used to be a lawyer, was homeless for 10 years after losing his job, divorced and dealing with mental illness. Today Ramsey lives in a permanent dormitory at Second Street Studios in San Jose.
“I could easily be one of those people,” said Ramsey, indicating the tombstones that surrounded him. “I didn’t think that some nights I would make it.”
Next year, activists are preparing for another surge.
“We’re running out of places big enough for this memorial,” said Cartwright.