Fourteen people died on San Jose streets — in one month
Rows of makeshift tombstones filled the plaza outside the Santa Clara County Government Center during the 2021 homeless deaths memorial. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Santa Clara County might see another record breaking year in homeless deaths, with 14 people dying on the streets in September alone.

    As of Friday, 167 unhoused people have died in Santa Clara County this year—roughly 73% of them died in San Jose, according to county’s data. The number is following an alarming trend the region has seen in the last decade.

    “It’s an avalanche,” homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright, who also helps organize the annual memorial for those who died on the streets, told San José Spotlight. “We’re right on track to hit the same number from last year again.”

    The number of unhoused deaths in the region has significantly grown in the last few years. According to a 2017 study done by the county, homeless deaths in the heart of Silicon Valley jumped 164% between 2011 and 2016, from 50 deaths to 132. The number has only grown larger since then—with 172 deaths in 2019 and 227 deaths in 2020. The county saw a staggering 250 homeless deaths last year—the highest in the last decade.

    The growing number is a sobering reminder of the cruel reality for thousands of unhoused people, and the failures of local lawmakers to protect the most vulnerable in the community. Despite unprecedented efforts from the county and city to address the growing homelessness crisis, their work continues to fall short. Residents are becoming homeless at a faster rate than people are being housed. Santa Clara saw its unhoused population grow 3% during the pandemic, totaling 10,028 people as of this February.

    Roughly 60 homeless deaths this year were drug-related, and county officials vow to not let up on finding solutions—such as temporary shelters, permanent homes and mental health and substance use services.

    “No deaths are acceptable,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who has co-led efforts to address the mental health and substance use crisis in the region, told San José Spotlight. “We have to work harder and smarter and faster to get people into into treatment and into stable housing so that we can end that circumstance of people dying on our streets.”

    Supervisor Otto Lee, who is also pushing for more mental health and substance use services, said the county needs to do more to prevent these deaths. Lee and Ellenberg recently demanded county officials take immediate action on a number of delayed projects that would help combat the crisis.

    "It’s heartbreaking, especially since many of these deaths could have been prevented," Lee told San José Spotlight. "We’re pushing county administration to quicken the expansion of services, beds, and treatment, but we also need a more concerted effort to get more Narcan to our unhoused residents and encampments. We’re making progress but not swiftly enough."

    San Jose mayoral candidate and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said she's particular concerned with the number of people dying of fentanyl overdoses.

    "We need to continue to expand detox beds, make Narcan readily available to reverse the effects of overdosing on opioids—including fentanyl—and hire more police and fire personnel which has been devastated these past few years," Chavez told San José Spotlight. "To prevent these needless deaths, we can’t abide by San Jose’s current status quo that has governed our city."

    San Jose mayoral candidate and Councilmember Matt Mahan said building more temporary, quick-build housing on public land such as the county Fairgrounds could be a solution.

    "Our current homeless policies are literally a death sentence for many homeless residents," Mahan told San José Spotlight. "We need to make sure every city in our county and every county in California is doing their fair share, so San Jose is not overburdened as we struggle to solve this humanitarian crisis."

    Six of the 14 homeless deaths this month happened during the weeklong heatwave when temperatures hit 109 degrees. According to the county's data, at least one unhoused person died a day between Sept. 5 and Sept. 9. The causes of death in these cases are still pending, but county officials confirmed with advocates at least three homeless people died from the heat.

    Todd Langton, an advocate with the group Agape Silicon Valley, said the county failed to plan for water needs during the heatwave. Many local organizations rely on the county for supplies such as bottled water, but he said supply was limited during the hottest days of the year.

    "It just left me with the impression that there's a lack of planning, a lack of care and a lack of concern at the county level," Langton told San José Spotlight. "Something has got to change, and our county and our city needs to find its soul, because it was lost long ago."

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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