Shaw: The season of reflection
Rows of makeshift tombstones filled the plaza outside the Santa Clara County Government Center during the 2021 homeless deaths memorial. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    It’s that time of year again where we begin to gather with family and friends, put on extra pounds and spend way too much money. Its hard to believe Thanksgiving is next week, because the year has gone by so fast. But nevertheless, the holiday season is here, and it’s often when people take time to reflect and remember.

    Within the past year I’ve seen my son grow as a person. Having to accept the painful challenges of transitioning from a boy to a young Black man. A young Black man in America. A neurodivergent young Black man in America with all of the misconceptions, hatred, love, joys and everything else that comes along with it. Some of my scariest and proudest moments.

    Within the past year I’ve seen downtown San Jose begin its evolution. Completed high-rise apartment projects have created a different skyline. And the continued closings of small businesses, like 4th Street Pizza, create a different landscape as lease holders continue seek more profitable opportunities.

    Within the past year I’ve seen homelessness get much needed attention and funding from the governor. Making cities and counties do what they should’ve already been doing.

    But there are still things that haven’t changed, like how homeless people continue to be villainized.

    Last Thursday, I tuned in to a Zoom meeting of the Housing and Community Development Commission, because it has two newly created seats for people that have experienced homelessness, and I’m interested in obtaining one of them. Well, the meeting was a horrendous. Instead of warmly welcoming the newly established seats, it seemed as if the commission was more like “need not apply.” What was supposed to be a topic of fire safety turned into all homeless people being drug users and thieves.

    Peruse the San Jose Police Department crime statistic reports and it’s obvious homeless people account for a minimal amount of crime within San Jose. And drug overdoses have become so bad that the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors plans to distribute free Narcan kits through vending machines placed at jails, court buildings, high schools, colleges, hospitals, bars and restaurants.

    But the homeless are the only ones people see as having problems. Maybe that’s why homeless people continue to die on the streets.

    Yesterday I began helping with what now has become an annual tombstone project, with the Unhoused Response Group of which I am a member.

    We are an advocate group that treats homeless individuals like human beings. We take food and water and electrolytes to encampments, along with dog and cat food. We provide tents, sleeping bags and tarps for those who are in need. We hand out hygiene kits, sanitation wipes, socks, condoms and feminine products.

    We also have started a Death Prevention Project, where we we provide fire extinguishers, Narcan for drug overdoses and headlamps so the homeless can be seen at night. The majority of pedestrian deaths in San Jose are homeless people. And we are the only group that does this.

    We also connect people with needed services, like getting cars repaired and/or registered. We get people into tiny homes or other shelter options, and we’ve gotten a few people into rehab within this past year. We’re not a nonprofit, because we’re not a business, which limits our reach and grant opportunities. We do have a fiscal sponsor, which allows us to obtain minimal funding. We’re basically advocates who care about the people we serve.

    The tombstone project is a way to give those homeless individuals who have lost their lives a bit of respectful recognition. It’s also a reminder to the county and cities that they have to do better. Each tombstone includes information obtained from the county coroner. We include the person’s name, date of birth and ethnicity. The ethnicity is shown in the form of a flower on top of the tombstone, with a color for each different race. All tombstones are painted and prepped by hand, and then the personal information and flowers are added. Last year we had over 250 tombstones, and so far this year over 200 homeless people have died in the county, predominantly elderly.

    It’s an emotional time because some of the names are known to the group, and so many die alone. For me personally, it’s a reminder of how fortunate I have been to have people who’ve looked out for me, including doctors and therapists. Things could’ve been much different for me if I hadn’t met the right individuals at the right time.

    The tombstone project is held on winter solstice, Dec. 21. It will be displayed in front of the county executive building, but there is consideration for San Jose City Hall. It is quite a sight when you are able to visualize the magnitude of the problem.

    During this season of reflection and remembrance, I encourage people to stop by and give some respectful recognition to those who are often overlooked and shown disdain. No one should ever have to die alone on the street.

    Jerome Shaw is an unhoused advocate for the homeless and previously lived at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley. Contact Jerome at [email protected]

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