Roberts: Another year of senseless deaths

Marcus. Christina. José. You may never have heard of these individuals before but they matter. Their lives matter. And the way they died matters. They deserve better, as do the over 6,000 homeless individuals on the streets of San Jose.

And these deaths extend far beyond San Jose. From 2011 to 2017, the number of people who died on the streets of Santa Clara County increased by 164%. In 2016,132 people perished on Santa Clara County streets.

In Sacramento County, 127 people died on the streets in 2017. The following year, in 2018, an unbelievable 918 people perished on Los Angeles County streets.

Some deaths make front page news. But, not these. There’s not much public disdain over these deaths, except from frontline social workers and issue advocates. Perhaps because all of these people were at one time homeless.

For some people, the very thought of homeless neighbors on our streets is maddening. But with the increasing numbers of people on our streets in most of California’s cities, somehow most people have become numb to this class of people. Some people are angry over the “invasion” of homelessness, others are overwhelmed, and some have just given up on the idea that homelessness will go away.

The lack of a serious, or well-funded plan to stop the scourge of homelessness is predictable. There is just no political will.

So when almost 1,000 people die on Los Angeles streets, there is no outrage. No tweets demanding that California do something about all of these deaths. No political bills proposed in the halls of the State Capitol to stop these senseless passings. No declarations in local City Council chambers.

For those of us on the frontlines of homelessness, we would be pleased just to have a public discourse on how to end these deaths, even if it meant public finger-pointing and denials. Anything, just to ease the numbness of silence and inaction.

For our frontline workers, we could have predicted the increase of homeless deaths in the last several years. People living on our streets are dying because they are getting older, and the threats on life are real. With not enough permanent or temporary housing, people — young and old — are languishing on our streets longer. That means the threat of sickness, disease and physical harm

Even the threat of a hate crime against people who are homeless is a reality. In the past 18 years, nearly 1,800 people who are homeless reported acts of violence that had been committed against them.

The glaring result of being homeless is an early death. The average lifespan of a person who lives on our streets is about 50 years old, less than 20 years the national average.

Will these deaths have an impact on our public discourse and policies?

Last month, a couple of well-respected California political leaders who have been proposing trend-setting policies to address homelessness for years, proposed a visionary — and also, controversial — approach to addressing street homelessness.

Darrell Steinberg, current Mayor of Sacramento, and previous California State Senate leader has created the Mental Health Services Act that funds services and housing for homeless Californians who struggle with mental health issues. He is co-leading the Governor’s new Homeless Advisory Task Force with L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was the visionary of the county’s Measure H that funds $350 million per year for homeless services.

Together, they are proposing a “right to shelter” (or right to temporary housing) for homeless Californians. This initiative would fund enough shelter beds for California’s homeless population and then mandate that people on the streets go to these shelters. Critics worry the proposal is criminalizing homelessness. But an initiative to get people off the streets quickly should not be dismissed quickly.

The details of such an ambitious initiative would certainly need to address critics’ concerns. But the authors’ motives cannot be questioned. Bold and forthright initiatives — that are also well thought through — are what we need to eliminate our collective numbness towards homelessness and create a sense of urgency for concrete and substantive action.

Otherwise, the status quo will only get worse — there will only be more faceless names living, and eventually dying, on our streets. We must support intrepid action if we are ever going to eradicate the homelessness crisis in our streets.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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