A man covers his face as names of unhoused individuals who died in 2021 is read
It was an emotional afternoon for many as the names of 151 unhoused who died in 2021 were read at the Food Not Bombs parking lot on the corner of Laurel and Front streets in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

On the shortest day and longest night, memorial honors Santa Cruz’s unhoused dead

Community members and advocates gathered at Front and Laurel streets Tuesday to honor 151 unhoused people who died in 2021 on the streets of Santa Cruz and in shelters. Here’s what Lookout’s Kevin Painchaud heard and saw.

Several dozen people gathered in a downtown parking lot Tuesday to honor unhoused community members who died in Santa Cruz County in 2021, with organizers reading off a list of 151 names.

“It was a combined list,” Alicia Kuhl, president of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union told Lookout’s Kevin Painchaud. “Ninety-five of those names were people who died directly on the streets of Santa Cruz, and the others were people that were formerly unhoused who died in shelters and things like that.”

Kuhl said the event, at the corner of Front and Laurel streets in a space used by nonprofit Food Not Bombs for food distribution, aimed to go beyond the numbers and humanize the dead.

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[The memorial] is to provide a space to honor them, to discuss their lives. … It’s a healing space, it’s a chance for us to talk about what’s going on here in Santa Cruz,” she said. “It’s really important that these people are honored not just as names in passing but that we get to know them and talk about them for a few minutes.

“We’re really disheartened to keep doing this and to keep breaking the record year after year with the homeless death toll.”

Lily Perry, who works with unhoused people with the Mental Health Client Action Network, came “because it seemed important.”

“I just saw that a young woman I knew, she was 26, is on the list,” she said, fighting back tears. “She’s just a baby … it’s just heartbreaking. She was 26 … 26.”

Perry recalled the aftermath of the death of another woman, whom she knew as Loretta.

“Her partner was just so broken over the loss of her, and it felt so senseless because no one in town cares about these deaths,” Perry said. “No one cares that she was blue outside a tent when someone found her. That’s not right.

“No one cared except this unhoused man … he was broken. He said, ‘Nobody wanted her, nobody cared about her, but I wanted her.’ His grief was like a dove, like a mockingbird, it was the most sincere thing.”

Here’s more of what Kevin saw Tuesday: