‘The world is missing something without him’: Santa Cruz memorializes its unhoused fatalities

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COVID wiped out the annual community celebration of homeless lives lost for two straight years. Wednesday marked its return and a packed Vets Hall illustrated the number of others affected by those losses — 137 people who had been unhoused at some point in 2022, 91 of whom lost their lives while deemed officially homeless.

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For the first time in three years, the names of those who died while experiencing homelessness in the county were read aloud and memorialized at Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Santa Cruz on Wednesday morning.

“Claudine J., 54 …

Eric J., 24 …

Harriet J., 72 …

Pedro M., 51 ...”

Some 137 names were solemnly spoken by five presenters who work in programs combatting Santa Cruz County’s homelessness crisis.

The county is home to one of the most acute homelessness problems in the nation — particularly, the 2022 point-in-time count survey revealed, for veterans, seniors and those experiencing serious mental health and substance use disorders.

Those like Joseph H., 51, who was given a special eulogy by a nurse named Suzanne Samson, one of the many caretakers who took a special liking to the charismatic “Joey,” who would ride his bike all over town, often putting smiles on faces.

“A lot of us loved him dearly and his death was really a hard one,” she said through tears. “He would come to the clinic every day for his meds. He always reminded me to be present in these really simple ways. He liked to say stuff like, ‘Suzanne, are you getting old?’, or sometimes he’d say, ‘Will you marry me?’”

The 2,229 unhoused recorded during the PIT count in late February put Santa Cruz County’s homeless population as a percentage at five times the national rate, according to those who study it up close.

More than 150 people — family and friends of the deceased and many from both the unhoused community and those who work in the field of homelessness response — formed a standing-room-only crowd for a service meant to humanize those lost too quietly to the scourge of homelessness.

a person bows their head at a memorial service
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The memorial had been an annual gathering since 1999 until COVID forced it to go virtual the past two years. Having it return in person brought back a feeling of shared humanity such an event cries out for.

Besides the reading of the names, attendees listened to personnel eulogies like Samson’s, the prayers of Peace United Church Rev. Beverly Brook and sobering data points logged by leaders of the county’s primary touchpoint for the unhoused, the Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP).

Among the most sobering:

  • Of the 91 individuals officially deemed homeless by HPHP at their time of death (there were 95 in 2021), a majority lost their lives to accidental overdose.
  • The age of those dying in the county’s unhoused population hit a 15-year low: 49 years old, far lower than the overall average age of death in the county — 76.
  • The largest number of deaths by age range was among those aged 31-40.
  • Echoed by data recently shared by the coroner investigator, fentanyl-related drug overdose deaths are expected to reach a new high when all toxicology results are finalized — a stat that suggests those living in dire conditions on the street are more directly at risk.

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley was the lone politico spotted in attendance, as members of groups such as HPHP, the Housing For Health Partnership, Housing Matters and Wings Homeless Advocacy made up a large portion of the attendees.

Joey Crottogini and David Davis of HPHP both provided stark assessments of the county’s homelessness problem — and the toll it takes on those who deal with it up close daily.

“Those of us in this field of work unfortunately get a little desensitized to it,” Crottogini said. “And, so we can push forward and be professional, respectful and kind to the next person, we hold it in.”

He paused before adding: “And it’s really, really hard.”

Davis is the one most responsible for logging the grim data points for HPHP. He said he is not alone searching for answers that don’t seem to materialize.

names of unhoused individuals who died in 2022
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The government at all levels needs to do more — it’s possible to house everyone,” Davis said. “We literally have to see the forest through the trees and decide it’s worth giving up a few acres of land so that thousands of people can be affordably housed.”

Davis spoke of the county’s minimal shelter beds and how COVID emergency funding going away stunted efforts to protect the population’s most vulnerable.

“It honestly gets tiring standing up here year after year, talking about the number of people who turned to homelessness and how they end up dead, usually much younger than the average age for a county or a nation,” he said.

Davis continued: “What I mean by tiring is that not enough is being done to prevent these things from happening. There are solutions, just not enough implementation and will to overcome obstacles to get it done.”

Then Davis nudged events toward the people lost in 2022: “The geology professor and the laborers, the baker and the podcaster, the funeral director, construction workers and the master’s candidate. And all the others who passed this year.”

Joseph H., 51, among them. Samson remembers the perspective he would bring to her and others at HPHP as he rode his bike up and casually interrupted their big-picture efforts to solve the intractable problem of homelessness and bring them into the smaller, present moment.

“It would open my heart every day to see Joey,” she said, voice cracking slightly. “The world is missing something without him, and I just wanted to acknowledge that.”

Samson was followed by a man named Kian, who told the group the help he’s gotten from the homelessness advocacy community over the past year has been nothing short of life-saving.

“I just want to thank you all,” he said, “because you are the only reason my name is not on this list this year.”



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