Gathered in a solemn circle in front of San Jose City Hall four days before Christmas, an interfaith group of residents mourned the 157 homeless individuals who died over the last year in Santa Clara County.
A chilly wind and temperatures expected to be below 40 degrees provided a visceral backdrop for the vigil. Many attendees huddled together, thinking of those who would be looking for socks and sweaters to push past a wet winter on the streets.
The Santa Clara County medical examiner’s office this month released the names of each homeless person who died between Dec. 1, 2017, and this Nov. 30, responding to a Dec. 4 public records request from the Rev. Andrew Bear.
Surrounded by people who were once or still are part of the homeless community, Bear said in a welcome message at the vigil:
“We see you, we remember you, we recognize you and your life matters.”
The medical examiner’s records list the person’s name and the date and place of death, with most having died in San Jose. To determine an individual’s homeless status, the office conducts interviews with family members, takes into account the location and environment where they died and reviews public records to determine whether they had a permanent address.
According to a study the office released in August 2017, the county’s homeless death numbers jumped 164 percent from 50 in 2011 to 132 in 2016.
The deaths are at a record high, but people who have lived on the streets or lost their friends are taking the number as little more than an acknowledgement of their upsetting reality.
A woman identified as “Mama G”, a respected matron of a homeless encampment south of downtown, gathered clothing from volunteers a few hours before the vigil so she could distribute the items throughout the camp.
She had heard of some acquaintances dying only a couple weeks prior, and said the only way to survive on the streets is to find a community:
“Don’t stop searching. … It’ll take a while, but it will come to you. Only the strong survive, so be strong.”
Mama G is a 66-year-old San Jose native and has battled multiple sclerosis while being homeless for about five years now. She now takes care of her daughter and her two dogs. She is hoping to find housing through Social Security in the next year. She said:
“If I could do it, anybody could do it, you know?”
She explained that cold weather and hunger are the worst challenges, but she has been able to make do with outside help.
Pastor Scott Wagers of CHAM Deliverance Ministry gathered volunteers at Mama G’s encampment on Friday and organized a small lunch for homeless individuals — an annual tradition for his birthday.
Wagers worked in a mayor’s task force in 1999, when homeless deaths were at 33, and said he was shocked by the medical examiner’s numbers because he expected them to have gone down in the last year.
He and other community members argue that skyrocketing housing costs and gentrification are aggravating the homelessness crisis, and the city should implement emergency housing measures to protect its most vulnerable residents.
Mayor Sam Liccardo, who attended the vigil and spent Christmas Eve serving meals with nonprofit HomeFirst, has repeatedly pledged his commitment to housing unsheltered people in San Jose.
The City Council last week approved a $7 million contract for “tiny homes” managed by HomeFirst that are expected to house about 320 individuals, and has in recent years reduced restrictions on accessory dwelling units.
Despite these efforts, hundreds of community members have felt alienated by the City Council, especially after its decision earlier this month to sell Google a $110 million plot of public land close to Diridon Station in San Jose for a proposed “mega-campus”. That Council meeting began with a small hunger strike and ended with six protesters being arrested for public disturbance.
Wagers and others staged a protest and small vigil last Thursday at the fenced-off campus lot near Diridon Station. Advocates called for an emergency housing encampment at the site while city officials spend the next few years in a planning and development process, leaving the large swath of land unused.
Ramon Johnson, a 59-year-old former radio host who has been homeless, read a poem at the protest addressing the land deal and San Jose residents who oppose housing with a “Not in My Backyard” mentality:
“If you hate homeless, don’t get bitter and let out a groan. … No, Mayor, City Council, NIMBYs and Google, let’s build the homeless — every homeless — a home.”