SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—During 2021, 95 people died while homeless, a distressing increase from the 58 who died last year and 77 in 2019.
Those numbers, delivered Tuesday during the 23rd annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day ceremony, were more than an ugly milestone, said David Davis, an analyst with the Homeless Persons Health Project.
“It is more than just an unheard of 22% increase from last year,” he said. “It is more than a larger number than last year for the fifth year in a row. It is 4.7% of the homeless population. It is one of every 21 people experiencing homelessness dying at some point during the year.”
The record numbers were a somber bookend to a year already wracked by a global pandemic, which Housing Matters Executive Director Phil Kramer said has “irrevocably changed how we live.”
“And for many of us it has certainly made the lives of those we care about and the people we love even more precious,” he said during the ceremony, which this year was held virtually. “But it feels indulgent to talk about a sense of normal or normalcy when so many of our neighbors are living without what most of us would consider normal—a safe place to sleep, a place to call home.”
The ceremony, during which the names of the people who died are read, is often the only memorial service they receive. Similar events happen in 150 communities across the U.S., Kramer said.
Davis said that the increasing numbers of deaths—and in the homeless population in general—are largely due to the decreasing amount of shelter space.
The county has only two hotels available, with funding running out in March. The shelter on River Street closed in May, a loss of 32 beds.
“If it seems there are more people on the streets than ever before, it’s because there are fewer shelter beds than ever before,” Davis said.
Davis said that being homeless has a deleterious effect on one’s lifespan, with one in every 21 people dying. This compared to one in every 139 housed people, he said. The average age for the homeless people who died was 52.
“Housing contributes years to our lifespan, and experiencing homelessness at some point in your life literally takes years off your life,” Davis said. “These are shocking statistics, and they shed light on just how vulnerable the homeless population is, and how life-threatening it can be to be homeless.”
Matt Nathanson, a public health nurse who formerly worked with the county’s Homeless Persons’ Health Project, said he was “floored” by the high numbers.
“So many of these people I feel like I have known for years,” he said. “It really is overwhelming.”
Nathanson remembered Mary Corey, who at 95 was the oldest among the people who died. Her cantankerous nature, he said, was juxtaposed with the ironic “Sweet Mary” license plate on her scooter. But this, he added, was a survival mechanism.
“Anyone who has worked in homeless services would remember her,” he said.
Nathanson also recalled Joan Alameda, who he said was often seen pushing a stroller with her dog inside.
“She had the best smile, and I am just so sad she’s gone,” he said.
A woman who identified herself only as Allie spoke of Dexter, the first person she met as a homeless person.
“He was a good friend to me,” she said. “You lose people quickly on the streets. We do lose them, too fast and too quick.”