Hundreds of people died on Silicon Valley streets in 2022
Santa Clara County saw 246 homeless people die on its streets this year, following the record high number of 250 deaths in 2021. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    As 2022 comes to a close, advocates are remembering the 246 homeless people who died on Silicon Valley streets.

    About 70 residents gathered in McEntee Plaza at Santa Clara County Government Center in San Jose Wednesday for a memorial service featuring rows of makeshift tombstones, each with the name of a homeless person who died between December 2021 and November this year. Among those who died, 146 were seniors. More than half were people of color. Three babies and seven teenagers and young adults between ages 16 and 25 also died on the streets this year.

    The annual memorial started in 2014 as a way to remember the 69 local homeless people who died that year. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    The annual event, hosted by the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, began in 2014 to remember 69 homeless people who died that year. The makeshift graveyard became part of the memorial about five years ago. The death toll has only grown larger since the memorial started, reaching 250 homeless deaths last year—the highest in the last decade.

    “We want to do something to bring awareness about the reality facing many unhoused people in the area,” Girish Shah, board chair for the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, told San José Spotlight. “People think unhoused people are drunks or all mentally ill, that’s not the case.”

    Some people died from traffic collisions, as San Jose has seen a record high number of traffic-related deaths this year. Organizers said they’re also seeing an alarming trend in homeless people dying by suicide this year—six as of November.

    County data shows many deaths related to drug overdoses or complications with medical conditions. A few people died of hypothermia, and at least three died from the heat.

    The event is a sobering reminder of the thousands of homeless people in Santa Clara County, and the slow progress from local policymakers to protect the most vulnerable in the community. Despite unprecedented efforts from the county and San Jose 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 County saw its unhoused population grow 3% during the pandemic, totaling 10,028 people as of this year.

    Kelli Saito-Martines (right) and her daughter attended the memorial to honor Ruben Hill, an unhoused person who died in 2020. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Lisa, a formerly unhoused person who declined to share her last name, said she’s lucky she got off the streets in 2020.

    “My biggest fear is having my name going up on one of these tombstones,” she told San José Spotlight. “I survived, but others aren’t so lucky.”

    San Jose resident Kelli Saito-Martines attended the memorial with a photo of Ruben Hill in hand. She said Hill, who died in 2020, was always seen with a big smile.

    “It’s heartbreaking,” she told San José Spotlight. “He was like a friend.”

    San Jose Mayor-elect Matt Mahan at the homeless memorial in McEntee Plaza on Dec. 21, 2022. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Local officials vow to not let up on finding solutions—such as temporary shelter, permanent housing and mental health and substance use services. San Jose has roughly 1,000 temporary homes planned, in construction or completed this year. The city received roughly $74 million from a state program to acquire four local motels and convert them into at least 281 homes for unhoused people and $51.5 million to construct a first of its kind, three-story prebuilt site with 204 rooms in the southern part of the city next year.

    Mayor-elect Matt Mahan said he’s exploring other solutions, including establishing sanctioned encampments—something the council has shot down before.

    “We should not have (roughly) 250 people in the wealthiest place on Earth dying on our streets, and yet somehow it’s become a norm,” Mahan said at the memorial. “What we’re doing is not meeting the needs.”

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

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