The mayor of San Jose standing at a podium holding a microphone
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan speaks Tuesday at the Boccardo Reception Center during a memorial for 201 unhoused people who died in Santa Clara County in 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

San Jose and Santa Clara County have spent decades and millions of dollars trying to end homelessness, and while some progress has been made, thousands remain on the street each night—and hundreds die each year.

In 2023, 201 unhoused people died on county streets, a number officials say is a grim reminder of a failure to address a deepening affordability and homelessness crisis. San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said the city clearly has work to do.

“All of us in elected office should have to confront the shortcomings and failures of our public policies,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.

Nearly 100 people, including elected officials, nonprofit leaders, advocates and unhoused residents attended the memorial, held at the Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose. The center is the largest emergency homeless shelter in Santa Clara County and is run by nonprofit HomeFirst.

The annual memorial has been held by HomeFirst for nearly two decades, and other regional nonprofits and homeless services organizations hold similar events all over the Bay Area each year. Two more memorials for those who died on the streets this year in the county will be held this Thursday.

“The 201 names we read this year means that we failed, as a system and as a society, 201 folks,” HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton told San José Spotlight. “It’s important for us to have this in the forefront of our elected officials’ minds as they make decisions moving forward.”

HomeFirst is the largest provider of homeless services in the county. Urton said there is no way to reconcile the dual realities that huge sums of money and years of effort have been spent, while barely putting a dent in the county’s homelessness crisis.

“What we need to do is more of the same, but we need to do everything all at the same time,” Urton said.

HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton said affordable housing construction must continue to maintain a pipeline for people to be housed. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Nearly 10,000 people are unhoused in the county, and a large majority of them are unsheltered, according to county data.

“We can’t stop building affordable housing, we absolutely can’t or there’s no pipeline to put people in. We also can’t stop creating safe dignified spaces for people to be in temporarily,” Urton said. “We have to continue with resourcing outreach, so we can get to people that are outside and save lives.”

During the memorial, attendees said prayers for those who have died, and for the hope of a day without anyone living on the street. A table was filled with lit small candles for each person who died, and people sang songs to honor the dead.

Eduardo Avilez-Jarza, 43, lives at the Boccardo center, and has been homeless for about four years. He spoke out during the event to ask that his friend and bunkmate, William Foster, be honored as well.

“He was my neighbor and he was a good guy. He was smart, he liked crosswords. I miss him, I’ll tell you that,” Avilez-Jarza told San José Spotlight about Foster.

Uphill battle 

This year, there was an 18% drop in the number of recorded deaths of unsheltered people compared to 2022—but in the last decade, there has been a 61% increase in such deaths, officials said. County data shows the average age of the people who died is 50 years old, with the youngest being 20 and the oldest being 86.

“Someone whose life was just starting out. And someone who never should have had to spend their final days living in the cold and uncertainty of our streets,” Mahan said. “We mourn their passing, recognize their humanity and we must reaffirm our commitment to ending homelessness in our community.”

Mahan said any deaths of people on the street are unacceptable, especially in such a wealthy area. He said leaders have a moral imperative to address the issue, and it will require taking risks and not letting “perfect be the enemy of good.”

“We design solutions to help the lucky few without providing an improvement for everyone who needs it,” Mahan said. “We need scalable solutions to meet the immense human suffering on our streets today and end it.”

Avilez-Jarza said he didn’t hear the name of a man he knew named Juan who died this year while living in a tent near the shelter. He came to pay respects to others who, like him, have struggled in the pricey and pressurized Bay Area, many who have turned to drugs or alcohol to cope.

“I would like to honor people that have lived in the streets and lived a hard life,” he said.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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