A soft chorus of voices from the Santa Cruz Threshold Singers welcomes me as I walk into the Santa Cruz County Vets building where the annual Homeless Memorial takes place.
This year is the first since the start of the pandemic that the memorial, which honors those who died while experiencing homelessness, has taken place in person. The rows of chairs in the building fill up as Joey Crottogini, the health center manager for Homeless Persons Health Project, starts to speak. People continue wandering in, standing against the walls and in the back of the room, packing the space.
The mood is warm, with people embracing each other and holding hands. Colorful squares of paper with the names and ages of unhoused people who have passed away decorate the walls. I sit next to a bright orange paper with the name Yosef C., age 28, written in looping handwriting.
Meanwhile, outside, someone dips into a makeshift blue tent constructed from tarps.
This year, 91 people experiencing homelessness died on the streets of Santa Cruz County, along with another 45 housed individuals who previously experienced homelessness. An estimated 2,299 people are experiencing homelessness in the county, slightly more than the previous year, which counted 2,167 unhoused people. Last year, the memorial honored approximately 95 unhoused people who had died.
The average life expectancy for someone living without permanent housing is around 50 years old, almost 20 years lower than someone who is housed, says David Davis, Homeless Persons Health Project analyst.
“Struck down in the prime has never been truer,” Davis says. “Housing contributes years to our lifespans.”
He says there’s no shortage of theories as to why that age gap exists, though deaths from Fentanyl overdoses, which continue to climb countywide and countrywide, are common. According to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, from January to September this year, there were 64 deaths from overdoses in the county. Compared to the last four years, the county is set to outpace the number of overdose-related deaths.
Davis points out that 70% of people overdosing are housed.
“The issue of addiction goes well beyond people experiencing homelessness,” he says. “The only thing that separates people experiencing homelessness who are struggling with addiction, and people who are housed with these disorders, really comes down to money and support.”
Davis notes that there’s one certainty: these deaths are preventable.
“It is possible to house everyone,” he adds. “We literally have to see the forest for the trees, and decide it is worth giving up a few acres of land so that thousands of people can be in the house—it gets tiring standing up here year after year, talking about the number of people experiencing homelessness and how they end up dying.”
For 15 minutes, the names of those who died while experiencing homelessness, along with their age when they passed, were read aloud at the podium in front of the crowd.
Adrienne A, 19, the list begins.
After the last name is read, a moment of silence falls across the room.
“This memorial is most importantly about celebrating the lives of those who were lost,” says Davis. “It’s been said that the saddest day for anyone will be the last time someone alive thinks of them. We refuse to let this happen, this year and every year.”
For more information about the Homeless Persons Health Project, visit santacruzhealth.org.
The Homeless Memorial didn’t return. We have never missed one year. We had it at Lot 27 last year and next to the abandon Taco Bell the year before. We had the one for the homeless this year at the Town Clock
Thanks for the clarification. We are writing about the county-held memorial. I believe you are referring to memorials held by Food Not Bombs.
Feel free to email me at: [email protected] if you have further questions.
Aiyana Moya, News Editor