Nearly one person a day died on Silicon Valley streets
George Villanueva points out his makeshift home at Columbus Park. Photo by Jackie Contreras.

In one of the world’s wealthiest regions, 30 people died in the streets over the span of a month—nearly one person a day dying outdoors in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Homeless advocates said the number emphasizes the ongoing homeless crisis—accounting for almost one person per day—and stands in sharp contrast to the region’s wealth.

The deaths occurred between mid-December to late January, according to advocates.

The revelation is especially concerning after Santa Clara County reported 250 homeless deaths in 2021—a record-breaking number.

The reported deaths range from Dec. 14, 2021 to Jan. 22 of this year, and the causes vary from car accidents to gunshot wounds. Some results are still pending and may be related to drug overdoses, according to homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright.

Cartwright said even though it happens frequently, a recent death hit her hard because she personally knew the woman.

“We just keep losing people we know, people we love, people that have families,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright told San José Spotlight the deaths—a large portion of which were reported to be people of color—may be linked to a recent and ongoing spike in pedestrian fatalities, as well as the location of overnight warming locations.

Warming centers like those located on Senter Road and Aborn Road in East San Jose leave out homeless residents living in other parts of the city, advocates said.

Encampment sweeps also play a big role in pedestrian-involved collisions, Cartwright said. The sweeps push homeless residents closer to main roads where chances of being hit by cars are high. San Jose conducted more than 200 sweeps last year.

“I know a lot of people feel like sweeps don’t kill, but I’m pretty sure they do,” Cartwright said.

In an effort to keep homeless residents safe from car accidents, Cartwright and members of the Unhoused Response Group offer people backpacks with reflective strips and beanies with built-in headlamps to make them visible to drivers at night. In addition, the group provides services such as food distribution and clothing donations.

Advocates say more housing is needed to help avoid fatalities, especially during the winter.

Not every unhoused individual, however, wants a home.

Homeless resident George Villanueva said he prefers to stay at Columbus Park instead of shelters because of the freedom it grants him. Photo by Jackie Contreras.

George Villanueva, 78, currently lives in his makeshift home in Columbus Park, one of the Bay Area’s largest encampments where many homeless residents sleep in tents, in their RVs or on mattresses laid out on sidewalks.

Villanueva said he’s able to keep warm from the cold winter nights with the clothes and sleeping bags that are donated almost daily to those living in Columbus Park. He also keeps warm with an electric heater he charges through a generator that sits dangerously close to his tent.

Some, however, resort to more drastic ways to stay warm throughout the night. Villanueva said he often sees people light campfires close to their tents, which sometimes catch on fire.

“What’s happening is a lot of people are setting fires to keep warm,” said Villanueva, who mentioned seeing a nearby RV on fire recently.

Homeless resident George Villanueva thanks a passerby for giving him a box of granola bars. Photo by Jackie Contreras.

Though Villanueva has been offered temporary housing, he turned it down.

“When you’re out here you’re just free,” Villanueva said. “I mean, you move when you want to move and you do what you want to do.”

The city’s plans to provide long-term housing solutions have drawn criticism from homeless advocates.

“Something has to change in this city, and I don’t see it happening,” homeless advocate Gail Osmer told San José Spotlight. “Until the City Council steps up and does something it’s never going to change.”

Advocates say San Jose officials have not done nearly enough to tackle homelessness and want to see long-term solutions.

This immediate action should come in the form of Pallet shelters, Cartwright said, referring to a brand of tiny homes. These houses provide homeless people with privacy, heating and air conditioning.

Pallet shelters are owned and manufactured by the Washington-based company, Pallet. They are tiny homes and can be assembled and disassembled multiple times. Pallet shelters are already in use in San Jose’s Casitas de Esperanza, a tiny home community at the Civic Center that also provides residents with bathroom trailers.

Advocates want to see city officials prioritize Pallet shelters instead of temporary shelters at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

But neither one will happen at the vacant fairgrounds, which instead will be used for a world-class cricket stadium. In January, Santa Clara County and Major League Cricket announced plans to move forward with the development on 14 acres at the fairgrounds—a blow to advocates who rallied to use it as a housing site for homeless residents.

Shelters lack safety and often put unhoused individuals in dangerous situations, Osmer said.

“Shelters are not a good place for folks, ever,” Osmer said. “They’re not run safely.”

Osmer said San Jose has not done enough to provide adequate solutions to its homeless individuals.

“They know how many unhoused people have died from exposure,” Osmer said. “Even though they know this, they have not stepped up to help.”

Contact Jackie Contreras at [email protected] or follow @C96Jackie on Twitter.

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