Death of San Jose man spurs questions about homeless shelter capacity
Ruben Eldridge Hill lived at the southeast corner of Second and St. John Streets in downtown San Jose. Left: Hill smiles on Thanksgiving morning. Right: Hill receives a new coat in November 2020. Photos by Kelli Martines.

    On a cold and rain-soaked December night, Ruben Eldridge Hill slept beneath the entrance of an empty office building in downtown San Jose.

    And by 11:40 a.m. the next morning, the 55-year-old man, who’d lived on the streets for years, was dead.

    No one knows yet what caused Hill’s death. But many agree that his life was a treasure, and like many homeless deaths, it could have been prevented.

    Hill’s last night alive was spent in the entryway to 96 North Second Street across from St. James Park on Saturday, Dec. 12. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    “It’s an injustice that we had to lose him so soon,” said Caroline McKusick, a volunteer who helped organize a memorial service for Hill.

    Hill was one of the roughly 200 homeless people who died in Santa Clara County over the past year. The death rate among homeless people in the county has more than tripled between 2000 and 2018.

    St. James Park in downtown San Jose has long been a refuge for unhoused residents. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    McKusick is an organizer with Soulutions Bay Area, a San Jose-based mutual aid group. She and a few other volunteers met at the corner where Hill used to sleep about a week after his death to share memories.

    “He was just such a warm storyteller,” McKusick said. “He was a fixture of the community and kind of oriented people.”

    Scott Largent, a longtime homeless activist, filmed the morning police found Hill deceased on the cold street corner. A police officer suggested that Largent not film the removal of Hill’s body. After workers removed the body, police stood by as Groundwerx workers and others shoveled Hill’s belongings into trash bags. About mid-way through the cleanup, another officer asked the workers to look out for any identifying documents.

    Largent mentioned Hill’s death at the Dec. 15 Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors’ meeting during a discussion on the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program. Largent said HIll had appeared physically sick in the last days of his life, and asked the county to investigate his death and inform as many people as possible of the outcome.

    “From what I’m hearing, this man might have been sick,” Largent said. “It makes things very difficult… let’s look into what happened to this man.”

    Yuko Miyamoto, left, and Hajime Yamamoto pay their respects to Hill during a memorial service held on Monday, Dec. 21. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    Jorge Maravilla said he was with Hill on the night that he died.

    Maravilla, who is also homeless, had gathered his belongings and moved them with Hill’s to the entrance at 96 N. Second Street in San Jose. Maravilla said Hill was not feeling well, neither physically or emotionally. Maravilla went to the store and bought some chocolate milk for Hill, and said goodnight to him around 3 a.m. on Dec. 13.

    Unhoused resident Jorge Maravilla said he was with Hill during his final night alive on Saturday, Dec. 12. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    Later that morning, San Jose police received a call at 11:40 a.m. that a body was found on the southeast corner of St. John and Second Streets, according to Sergeant Christian Camarillo. The police called the coroner’s office.

    Kelli Martines, a volunteer who helps bring food every Tuesday to homeless residents at St. James Park, said Hill’s big smile would always brighten the moods of people around him.

    “He was such a blessing to all of us,” Martines said. “He was just smart and funny.”

    Martines said Hill had been homeless for several years and was not interested in seeking shelter.

    “I talked to him if I could help him find some housing programs,” Martines said. “He felt at home and at peace out here.”

    Maravilla said Hill always tried to be a positive force, and that despite having very little to give, was always generous to everyone around him. Hill had struggled at times with substance abuse, she said, but never gave up trying to get clean.

    It is not unknown whether Hill attempted to access any shelters the night before his body was found. But even if he had, there might not have been any spaces available.

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said Dec. 15 that San Jose had not opened any overnight warming centers this season and asked whether there were any places available for homeless people to seek refuge from the rain and cold.

    According to Selene Ho, director of the county’s Valley Homeless Healthcare Program, only one overnight warming center was open when Hill died — the Armory Winter Shelter in Gilroy. Ho said the county is working with San Jose to find additional sites that can be used as overnight warming centers.

    Police would not provide San José Spotlight a police report or answer questions about who called to report Hill’s death, saying only parties involved in the incident are entitled to that information.

    The Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner is still determining Hill’s cause of death.

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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