Eduardo Almanza has been homeless on and off for years. He’s had a number of close calls with cars and the VTA light rail in San Jose, and he openly admits to becoming disoriented and ending up in the road. He said he’s seen friends with bruises and sprained ankles caused by drivers not paying attention to people crossing the streets.
“Remind people to yield to pedestrians, something as simple as that,” the 33-year-old told San José Spotlight. “A lot of the times we forget those little things, right? Because we’re in such a rush to get back to work from lunch.”
A five-year data analysis conducted by the Vision Zero Task Force, a San Jose traffic safety program, shows a sharp increase in homeless traffic fatalities from 2018 to 2022, with five deaths in 2018 that grew to a total of 51 by 2022. As a result of these findings, Vision Zero is increasing its outreach to people in encampments in an effort to increase their safety when crossing the road.
Vision Zero Program Manager Jesse Mintz-Roth said the task force and San Jose’s Department of Transportation are still unsure why there was such a steep rise in deaths. But he hopes the first-of-its-kind data analysis will help lower the numbers as they track data in conjunction with the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner.
One of the problems is visibility. The data revealed 71% of these deaths happened to people walking, the majority at night, and 92% of victims and drivers were sober at the time of collision.
“We want people to be visible. We want drivers to be visible. We want everyone to be visible, but it’s a challenge,” Mintz-Roth told San José Spotlight.
Vision Zero hasn’t released the 2023 numbers yet, but Mintz-Roth said tentative data indicates six unhoused people died out of 49 total traffic fatalities for the year—a lower figure than 2022 with eight out of 65 traffic deaths.
Mintz-Roth said Vision Zero sees a correlation between unhoused traffic fatalities and encampments that are not directly near an intersection, such as Coyote Creek where Valley Water spent millions trying to clear out the unhoused population last April.
San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz said the origin of the issue is twofold: increased speeding by drivers and a lack of adequate infrastructure for pedestrians. Ortiz represents District 5, which had the second highest number of fatalities at 11. District 7 had the highest with 15 deaths. Councilmember Bien Doan, who represents District 7, could not be reached for comment.
“It’s incredibly saddening to take in this data, knowing full well that these are residents with stories of their own,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “I mourn their loss and strive to honor their memory with action.”
Ortiz referenced two streets where a total of six people died—McKee Road and Jackson Avenue —that are receiving upgrades to make pedestrian traffic safer. This includes high-visibility crosswalks, cement center medians with landscaping and median fences.
“I’m confident that given adequate resources, strong community input and data to support project placement, we’ll be able to create roads that are safe, walkable and inviting for all to use,” Ortiz said.
Districts 5 and 7 are known for having some of the most dangerous streets in San Jose. There were seven unhoused deaths at Story Road and Keyes Street, four at Jackson Avenue and four at Tully Road from 2018 to 2022.
Sandi, 71, who didn’t want to give her last name, has been unhoused for a year-and-a-half after paying for her son’s medical care. She said it’s difficult for unhoused people to know when to cross the street.
“There’s no safety crossing the streets because you can’t judge the driver,” she told San José Spotlight. “Some will see you crossing the street, some don’t care.”
Sandi said she wants to see more protection for disabled and elderly unhoused people who have difficulty crossing the street.
Lam Cruz, division manager of transportation safety for San Jose, said the city has been putting up signs telling drivers to slow down in areas where there is a high frequency of traffic deaths.
Mintz-Roth said the task force will be looking into shortening the amount of time lights stay green at night to discourage speeding. He said it’s important to understand the deaths in the unhoused community represent real people.
“We sometimes ‘other’ people who are unhoused,” he said. “We’re all residents of the same place.”