Cartwright: Body count highlights how cities are failing the homeless
A homeless encampment established on the corner of Branham Lane and Monterey Road in San Jose. File photo.

How do you measure political malfeasance and cowardice? What is the yardstick to best tick off moral failings like one would measure the growth of their children?

Bodies. Dead bodies.

As temperatures have stayed in the 30s at night, as torrential rains pound the South Bay, as flood warnings have been issued, advocates implore cities to 1) do a better job of warning our unhoused neighbors of the storms and flooding risks, 2) open warming centers and 3) pass out emergency supplies to our unhoused neighbors. All in an effort to prevent certain and avoidable tragedy.

Specifically in Sunnyvale, several advocates sent the city manager and Mayor Larry Klein detailed letters regarding the locations and perilous situations of the unhoused neighbors they work with. They begged for an overnight warming center.

Sunnyvale, a luxe city with one of the highest unhoused populations with nearly 10 unhoused deaths, including exposure deaths, has failed to respond to multiple advocate emails.

Back to bodies. There’s five people who died in a single night this week from exposure. Five people froze to death.

Cities like Sunnyvale are killing people. Cities like San Jose, which haven’t opened a single warming center, are killing people. It’s an undeniable and completely avoidable fact after five people died in a single night.

When San Jose chose to give unhoused people the heave ho for Van Gogh, they started the ball rolling for more deaths. During the transition, the shutting down of South Hall as an emergency shelter, they lost track of 80 people. How many of those 80 are back on the streets, getting community acquired pneumonia and/or dying of exposure? Approximately 250 people stayed at South Hall for more than a year and then, poof, tourism was more important than their lives.

I know, many people think, “well the county should be the ones to help the homeless,” and I certainly agree, they should do more. But it’s the city that operates warming centers. And it’s San Jose that operates overnight warming centers.

San Jose is opening two on Dec. 20, about two months after the first atmospheric river. Combined, they will have 60 beds to “serve” about 7,000 unsheltered people.

The warming center plan passed unanimously at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, even though Districts 2, 9 and 10 have at least 250 unhoused people between Bass Pro Shop and the Bernal tiny homes who won’t benefit at all from this. It passed unanimously even though downtown, represented by a mayoral candidate, won’t benefit from these locations at all.

So why did the councilmembers for these districts support it? Why did any councilmember support a plan that puts people back on the street at 7 a.m., when it’s still freezing, and doesn’t let them in until 8 p.m., long past dark and long after it’s cold. These are the conditions that exacerbate potentially deadly medical conditions in our most fragile citizens. Because San Jose excels at killing people, particularly seniors.

One hundred forty one seniors died on the streets of Santa Clara County this year, almost all in San Jose.

Advocates, volunteers and former unhoused people are all going to various camps handing out whatever warm goods they have in an effort to keep people sheltered and dry. It’s a heavy burden for these people, you feel so alone out there, as if you’re the only ones trying to keep people alive after being abandoned by the city and county. It is literally a battle between life and death and it is overwhelming.

The county’s Valley Homeless Health Care Program mobile unit is going camp to camp throughout the county this week shuttling people to shelters, to hospitals, rendering aid, etc. in an effort to prevent more deaths.

Imagine if this had been going on since before the rain started. Imagine if there were several mobile units from the city and county going all over, providing people rides to various shelters and warming centers—and materials to stay warm and dry for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to the shelters and warming centers.

Imagine if councilmembers from various cities had political will and a conscience. Imagine if they didn’t see our unhoused neighbors as expendable or collateral damage for political futures.

Imagine if everyone saw unhoused people, actually saw them, didn’t try to avoid them, heard their stories, triumphs, tragedies and treated them like people.

Imagine if those five people were still alive. Imagine if those 141 seniors were still alive.

Come honor their memories on Dec. 21.

Shaunn Cartwright is a local homeless advocate and founder of the Unhoused Response Group.

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