Memorial honors 250 homeless deaths in Santa Clara County
Members of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council shared prayers for the lives of homeless residents cut short. The group started hosting the annual memorial eight years ago. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Kelly Tasker, a grandmother at the age of 44, battled homelessness for nearly a decade.

    Through the help of the Compassion Center in Gilroy, Tasker found her first permanent apartment that would have given her a chance to get help with her chronic illness and lift her partner off the streets.

    But for Tasker, along with 249 others who lived on the streets of Silicon Valley, help and assistance came too late. Tasker died in October—days away from moving into her apartment and escaping homelessness for good, said Francesca Paist, a case manager at the Compassion Center.

    “Kelly was a light,” Paist said in front of a crowd of more than 20 people and 250 tombstones created to honor unhoused residents whose lives were cut short because of homelessness. “I just can’t believe she died at 44. It’s unacceptable.”

    Kelly Tasker, a grandmother at the age of 44, died days away from moving into her first apartment after battling with homelessness for nearly a decade. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Rows of makeshift tombstones filled the plaza outside the Santa Clara County Government Center on Tuesday. Each bears the name of a person who died on the streets between December 2020 and November of this year. Thuy Nguyen, age 85. Patrick Green, age 18. Twin A and Twin B Trujillo, died in their mother’s womb.

    The annual memorial began about eight years ago. The event 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. The makeshift graveyard became part of the memorial about four years ago.

    The staggering number of 250 homeless deaths reached a new high this year in Santa Clara County. This year saw a 55% increase from two years ago, a disturbing level compared to 2019 when the county recorded 161 deaths, and 2020 when the number jumped to 196 deaths.

    “I’m so overwhelmed,” Lynn Saipman told San José Spotlight at the memorial. She lived in a camp located on a vacant lot owned by Apple before moving into a motel. “Each of these people was somebody’s baby, somebody’s mom, sister, brother.”

    Saipman said community services and assistance in the county is not enough to keep people from dying. Last year, she stuffed newspaper in her clothes for warmth to get through the winter months.

    Lynn Saipman, who has experienced homelessness because of an abusive relationship, said the city and the county are not doing enough for unhoused people. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Out of 250 lives lost on the streets this past year, 145 were seniors. More than half of those who died were people of color. Three babies also lost their lives. Thirteen people died by suicide, event organizer and homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright told San José Spotlight.

    Many unhoused residents are beaten down, especially with the pandemic raging on and promises of new housing yet to be fulfilled, Cartwright said. The city’s decision to start sweeping camps again this year has only pushed more people to their wits end.

    “These sweeps are killing people,” she said.

    Residents, advocates and lawmakers were somber as members of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council shared prayers for the lives cut short.

    “It breaks my heart,” Jake Cooper, who has been unhoused for the last 20 years, told San José Spotlight. “I don’t know what we can do to fix the problem.”

    In 2021, 250 people including three babies died without a home in Santa Clara County. It’s the highest number the area has seen. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    The record number of homeless deaths comes as local lawmakers race to provide more interim housing through motel and hotel rooms, among other solutions in the South Bay. In September, San Jose unveiled an ambitious goal of reducing homelessness by 20% by next year. These efforts involve building more prefabricated modular homes. Santa Clara County also has a plan to end homelessness by 2025, but those plans have drawn much skepticism from those who have waited years and seen little results.

    “I have spent 30 years fighting for the homeless,” Pastor Scott Wagers said at the memorial. “The first year I was here, 33 people died. This year, 250 people died. The mayor says we got a plan—a five-year plan, 10-year plan, 20-year plan. I was part of those plans. Some of you have been part of that planning. But what’s happening? The people are dying now at a rate that no one ever thought they would see.”

    Pastor Scott Wagers said Silicon Valley has the resources to solve homelessness, but lacks the political will to help the most vulnerable. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee said it’s clear the region has more work to do and the county is trying to build new housing as fast as possible.

    “But the reality is the number of deaths is still increasing,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “We’re in Santa Clara County, in Silicon Valley, we’re among the wealthiest counties in the country. Housing is one thing, but when people are literally dying in the streets, that’s tragic and unacceptable.”

    Seven other people died this past week during the rainy, cold weather, Cartwright said. She worries the death toll will only go up as lawmakers continue to fail to act.

    “The city, the county, they’re not doing anything,” she said.

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

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