In 2016, a total of 132 unhoused people were reported dead in Santa Clara County, eight of which were ruled a suicide, according to a study by the Santa Clara County Medical-Examiner Coroner office.
But county officials do not have an estimated count for suicide deaths among homeless residents for the last two years and without access to medical records or a clear procedure for determining whether a homeless death was intentional, experts say that number could be much higher.
“It would not surprise if that population has a higher-than average percentage of people who commit suicide. I don’t think it would surprise anyone,” said Shanna Webb, a developmental director at the Santa Clara County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides support and education to those suffering from mental illness, including homeless people.
The county coroner’s office is responsible for determining the cause of death for all decedents in Santa Clara County, including homeless residents. The process involves a formal autopsy, death scene investigation, toxicology and a review of mental health records, among other things.
But many people living on the streets do not have mental health records or access to consistent health care, making it difficult to determine whether they struggled with mental illness and if it contributed to their death.
“We offer courses and classes, but (homeless people) have to be on their journey toward recovery. It’s hard to get someone who is acutely not aware of their mental illness to come to a course to tell you how to get well for mental illness,” Webb added. “They’re autonomous. We can’t just say, ‘We think you have a mental illness and after we’ve had doctors look at you, we’re going to put you in a facility.’”
Despite the lack of mental health records, the county coroner’s office claims its statistics on homeless suicide in the region, which are lower than the national average, are “100% accurate.” Officials there declined further comment on the process of determining suicides in the homeless population.
Cecilia Martin, a resident of Second Street Studios, a permanent housing complex for the chronically homeless in downtown San Jose, criticized the county for what she finds to be lackluster investigations into homeless suicides. Martin was living near the highway for five years before getting her studio.
“As far as I’m concerned, they don’t investigate really at all,” Martin said. “They do the minimal possible investigation on anybody homeless who is found dead.”
Martin recounted a story about her friend, who went by the name Andrew Brown, a homeless man with a history of mental health issues, who died of an overdose last year. She said investigators didn’t talk to her during the investigation into his death before ruling he died of an accidental overdose.
“If (they) truly checked into it, I believe they might’ve seen it more as a suicide type of thing. He always talked about (committing suicide) that way,” said Martin. “He was rejected by the closest person to him out there that day.”
According to Martin, it’s these little details that could reveal the truth. She questions how authorities could get to the truth without building meaningful relations with the unhoused community.
Regardless of whether the county is thoroughly investigating homeless suicides, many agree that access to mental health services needs to be easier for homeless residents.
“It’s a matter of resources and priorities,” Webb said. “I think we have to figure out what our priority is. We can build tiny homes, but that’s not necessarily going to keep them off the street. Do I think we can do any more than what we do? Yes, with resources.”
Homeless deaths in Santa Clara County reached a record high in 2017, with 157 deaths, approximately two percent of the total homeless population, and dropped to 138 deaths in 2018. In 2013 and 2015, homeless suicides reached its highest numbers, with eight each year. The number of homeless suicide deaths was not available for 2017 or 2018.
Martin said it would help if San Jose authorities stopped sweeping homeless people from one encampment to another.
“I said if I had to move one more time,” Martin added, “I’m going to shoot someone or I’m going to shoot myself.”
Contact San José Spotlight intern Paolo Zialcita at [email protected] or follow @paolozialcita on Twitter.