County’s Homeless Death Count More than Doubles from 2015

The day she died, Johnette Villagomez—one of San Jose’s longtime homeless residents—assembled a collage of magazine clippings to depict her future. On a small piece of poster board, she pasted the letters R-E-N-E-W in big bold type. She’s not young anymore and needs renewal, she explained. Over an illustration of a woman’s face, she glued a smattering of adjectives: diva, nerd, quitter, failure.

“Unfortunately, names define us,” she explained when asked to describe the mosaic.

On the top of the page, Villagomez put a yellow detour sign. She’s merely sidetracked, not stopped, and the phrase “stronger than you think” is true of her, she said. Villagomez longed for peace and quiet, and shelter, so she added a photo of a sunlit forest and one of a house. On the upper right corner of the page, a snapshot of a tropical beach.

“I would love to be somewhere like this,” she said, tapping her finger on the image. “Like, on a beach or just somewhere where it’s calm.”

That night, May 13, Villagomez died in her car outside Grace Baptist Church. Cardiac arrest. She was 62. Kirsty Duncan, who led the collage crafting session with a group of homeless women and captured the event on video, will never forget the date.

“That was my birthday,” Duncan said. “She died at 9:44pm.”

Villagomez was one of at least 124 homeless people to die this year in Santa Clara County, according to newly released data from the Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office. That’s more than double the number of 2015, when 63 transients died out of a countywide homeless population of roughly 6,600. But the people recording these figures are puzzled why the death toll rose so sharply this year. The methodology used to collect the data is the same. And the South Bay homeless population has been on the decline, according to the latest point-in-time count.

“Our office is currently conducting a five-year retrospective study to figure that out,” Dr. Michelle Jorden, the interim head of the coroner’s office, told San Jose Inside.

San Francisco, in comparison, counted 41 transient deaths this year out of a homeless population of 6,500. New York City, which counts 60,000 transient people and suffers bitterly cold winters, recorded 212 deaths. That same rate applied to the South Bay would translate to 21 dead—about a third of what the coroner normally reports and just 17 percent of this past year’s count.

Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about the local death toll itself. Jorden’s report includes 124 names. Andrea Urton, head of HomeFirst shelters, disputed the accuracy of that number, saying she knows that 17 of those people were housed when they died.

“The list has to be vetted,” she said.

Andy Gutierrez, a deputy public defender who has been researching homeless mortality on his own time for years, said the county needs to fix its record-keeping so it can finally start analyzing the data.

“It really is sad that in this day and age, and as large and sophisticated as our county is, we do not have an accurate count of homeless deaths,” he said.

Gutierrez has been pressing county officials to compile an annual homeless death review, similar to the one issued each year on child mortality. He said the county already has the tools to identify the most vulnerable people and intervene before they die on the streets. The Economic Roundtable created an algorithm to determine who is in the most dire need of shelter. Gutierrez said that same computer-calculated triage could identify the people at the greatest risk of death with a great deal of specificity.

Three years ago, Gutierrez began compiling the names of every homeless person who dies on the streets in this county and tried to put a face to each name. Through public records requests, he identified the causes of death. He discovered that most were relatively young, generally middle-aged. They tended to die of exposure and preventable disease. About two-thirds of these people were public defender clients. But Gutierrez honed in on what appeared to be the strongest predictor of untimely death: alcohol.

“These individuals are being cited repeatedly and asked to move on from locale to locale,” Gutierrez said.“Many are forced to weather the heat and cold weather outside. Many die each year on the streets, some due to exposure.”

Armed with that knowledge, he said, the county could use the triage tool to predict who needs immediate help—those with chronic alcoholism and related medical conditions. Local officials have been slow to respond, Gutierrez said, but he hopes the dramatic surge in homeless deaths this year will ignite a sense of urgency.

At a candlelight vigil outside San Jose’s City Hall on Wednesday, Villagomez’s name was read among 132 others, including at least nine murder victims. About 100 people showed up for the open-air service, one of hundreds that took place throughout the country in observance of National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. Two choirs—one from the Recovery Café, a sobriety support group, and the other from the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation—sang hymns and carols. Ministers from every major religion shared words of mourning and hope.

“Your lives mattered,” said Rev. Andrew Bear, who organized the event through the Silicon Valley Inter-religious Council. He spoke about working toward a world where no one dies on sidewalks, riverbanks, fields or freeway underpasses.

Keith Saldivar, 55, burned sage as the crowd observed a few minutes of silence for the dead. As an off-and-on transient for the better part of three decades, he said, he knows hundreds of people who have died on the streets. The one he remembers most went by the name Gonzo.

“That guy was a musical guru,” said Saldivar, whose shoulder-length hair is streaked with gray. “He could recite any song, any lyric, right off the top of his head. He froze to death.”

Robert Aguirre, who spent years living in camps until he found stable housing two years ago, noted that nine of San Jose’s 46 homicide victims this year were homeless.

On Jan. 15, an unidentified 62-year-old man was purposefully struck by a pickup at Santa Clara Street and Delmas Avenue. On May 22, 37-year-old Randy Ruiz was stabbed to death on North Jackson Avenue. On July 17, 49-year-old Gilberto Garcia was fatally stabbed on North First Street. On Aug. 12, 41-year-old Alejandro Sacarias was killed by blunt force trauma by Highway 101 and Interstate 280. On Aug. 25, 44-year-old Victor Trejo was killed by blunt force trauma at Herald and Bonita avenues. On Aug. 27, 24-year-old Ricardo Michel was stabbed to death at Bascom Avenue and Leon Drive. On Sept. 20, 25-year-old Brandin Gaviola was gunned down near Los Lagos Golf Course. On Sept. 27, 61-year-old Valentine Cortesosguera was stabbed to death and left in a field around Jeanne Avenue and I-280.

“They were taken from us,” Aguirre said.

Toward the end of the service, Saldivar took his turn at the microphone. He gripped his burning bundle of sage as he spoke. He talked about the dangers of living without shelter, of struggling to hold on to blankets, jackets, batteries and socks. He condemned what he called the “vicious policy” of clearing out homeless camps in sweeps that leave people with nowhere to go. He defended the humanity of people who live so vulnerably.

“Some of us are drug addicts,” Saldivar said. “Some of us are in recovery. But I’ll tell you what, we’re not bad people, we’re desperate people.”

A friend of Villagomez sang “Amazing Grace” as a threnody. On the perimeter of the crowd, other friends of Villagomez held photos taken of her on her last day alive. In one picture, she’s seated at a table with two other women, cutting and pasting to assemble their “vision board” collages. For some reason, Duncan felt compelled to film the women that day. They seemed more open, energetic. She never imagined it would become a way to memorialize her.

“When she died, I couldn’t even fathom it,” said Duncan, who leads the crafting sessions under the aegis of a nonprofit called onRoute22. “At least I know that she left feeling happy and valued.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

17 Comments

  1. The constant sweeps are inhumane–people lose important paperwork, sentimental items, and most importantly, items that provide warmth. This policy must change.
    The city and county agreed to move forward with sanctioned encampments and have made NO progress on this in over a year. This must change.
    People cite the passage of Measure A as some panacea but those funds are years down the road from providing tangible relief on the streets.
    As a city, residents are largely just blase to the homeless situation. Case in point: last year, when a homeless person died in front of Yogurtland was covered with a sheet and surrounded in crime scene tape, people went about their business of eating yogurt and pizza with a few feet of the deceased person. A very small memorial was erected that disappeared within hours.
    People comment here and on Facebook, but few actually ever bother to attend community/city council meetings on homeless issues unless it’s to utter a NIMBYism and few actually work with/help homeless folks.
    Commence trolling…

    • You know what’s inhumane?

      There are 1000’s of acres of land in the valley, up on Mount Hamilton, out in the Almaden Valley Hills, that could be used to house people. Far enough away from any nimby’s crying, and far enough away from the vices that hold these people in this life.

      Yet not a single one of the wealthy a-holes I know, or am related to would ever consider giving up their private “Alum Rock Park” to house a few 100 homeless. It’s by far the cheapest, quickest solution I can think of. Get some tiny homes built up there, get them services, and keep them in a place that lets them reconnect with being human.

    • > Commence trolling…

      I tried, S, but my sage and insightful commentary “disappeared”.

      Inexplicable. No one seems to know what happened. Could be a conspiracy.

    • You know what else is inhumane? Government agencies allowing homeless encampments to become established on properties within their jurisdiction. It’s inhumane to the homeless and it’s inhumane to taxpayers. Government agencies that can’t seem to figure out that they need to step up security patrols- whatever it takes- and shoo these people away before they get established. It’s inhumane to allow them to set up camp if only for a few hours, days, or weeks when you know that inevitably they will suffer the disruption of an expensive and traumatic rousting out. SCVWD aggressively patrols their own Palace Grounds. Homeless are not allowed to sleep in City Hall. Caltrans doesn’t permit camping at their headquarters. These bureaucracies know how to look after their own interests. We need to insist that they look after ours too.

      • My solution to the homeless problem is to set up free homeless watering stations on the sidewalks outside of Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, David Cortese, and Sam Liccardo’s homes.

        A free homeless shuttle will pick up homeless people in their native habitat and whisk them to a homeless watering station where they will be deposited curbside and receive a free bottle of wine.

    • Why are sweeps inhumane or merit change?
      1. By law & practice all unattended items are bagged and tagged for 90 days. Notices are provided as to where stored items can be retrieved. No storage fee is assessed. A homeless debris field typically includes toiletries, clothing, food items, & backpacks. They are easily replaced at shelters at no cost. Since they are free, they have no value.
      2. Some facilities keep important papers and provide a mailing address at no cost.
      3. We’ve had multiple “sanctioned” encampments: The Jungle (reputably the country’s largest), Spring St (under SJC flight path), and the Guadalupe River encampment (during Susan Hammer’s administration). Drug trade, prostitution, assaults, and property theft were pervasive. SJ officials closed the The Jungle only after an environmental group & Cal Fish & Game initiated litigation, Spring St became a public embarrassment, and after repeated gun battles at the Guadalupe encampments.

      Akin to an addict ‘hitting bottom’, sweeps may encourage some to get help. Sweeps also nap parole violators and wanted persons. Sweeps enforce property rights. Sweeps can encourage homeless to get help or get out.

      Are collage crafting classes at Grace church effective homeless rehabilitation programs? Or simply a means to make homeless persons less visible and offer employment for social workers?

      Like you S, I’d like to see change too. Programs that produce tangible results would be a welcome change. Some homeless are incapable of independent living. Confinement in a “structured living environment” appears to a more humane option for them and for those of us that support them.

      • I have no idea who you are or where you got your “facts” but you are dangerously misinformed. I have been living on the San Jose streets for about a year and a half. I will tell you first hand that the notion of our personal items being bagged and stored in a sweep is a pipe dream. This summer I was camping at a location that got swept, the crews came and in the space of an hour while I had walked to the store they tossed just about everything into a compacting truck and crushed it. The camp consisted of about 7 tents and only one person was home when the sweep occurred. My belongings were all in my tent neat and organized, there was no trash or hazardous items. Yet they didn’t store any of this stuff for me. The one girl who was there watched the workers pocket a few of my things and callously throw everything else that I had, tent and all into the compactor. She fought with them to save my bicycle, it was the only thing I walked away with.

        Yes many charitable organizations give out supplies like toiletries, backpacks, and clothing but they are very limited in their resources and many can only offer to do this once or twice per year. To say that something that is free is valueless is extremely naive and wasteful. The items given by these organizations represent much needed donations as well as a lot of time usually by volunteers. Those things are not valueless. To me using those precious resources to replace perfectly good items that were taken and thrown away is a tragic waste.

        The camps that you mentioned were not sanctioned, they were merely tolerated for a time and then cleaned out when they became too troublesome to ignore.

        I live in a tent near the freeway. It’s cold, it’s wet, I’m constantly afraid of having to pack up and move again. I’m on several waiting lists for low income housing and the very real thought that I will still be freezing in this tent next winter is nearly enough to drive me insane. We are people. We are just like you. Most of us have made mistakes and bad choices, many of us have vices, but we are still people and we are dying out here.

        • > The camp consisted of about 7 tents and only one person was home when the sweep occurred.

          ROBIN ANNA:

          The “location that got swept” almost certainly was not YOUR home.

          The generous and long suffering taxpayers very likely DID provide a “home” for you in a shelter somewhere. At least we think we paid for a shelter somewhere. Who knows where the money really went.
          Public property and “the common areas” of our community are NOT your home. If you choose to accumulate possessions and keep them on the community’s lands, expect the community to RIGHTEOUSLY reclaim it’s public and common spaces.

        • I understand this woman’s pain, for once, after leaving the frame of the Chevy I was saving to restore in a storage yard I’d claimed for myself next to a creek, I discovered, to my horror, that the city had declared it abandoned junk and disposed of it. I never felt so… violated.

          I sure hope the city doesn’t find the private graveyard I created nearby… I’ve got plans for those bodies.

        • Robin, the basis for my claims originate from meetings with SJPD, SJ Housing authorities, and a review of the cleanup costs and practices. The Jungle’s 2015 cleanup cost was reported as $489,780.

          SJ has attempted to pay homeless for cleanup, but abandoned the practice. It was too expensive and inadequate. Equipment and supplies were stolen, instructions weren’t followed, and goldbricking were factors.

          Twenty people were arrested and 618 tons of trash were collected during the Jungle cleanup. Authorities claim they adhere to a 2014 9th Circuit decision that mandates bag & tag, yet some homeless advocates claim otherwise. I expect there have been some violations. It’s daunting to distinguish treasure from trash when property is seemingly abandoned.

          The sense I get from homeless providers is they triage applicants. Those that act on advice and recommendations get service: job training, supplies, drug, alcohol, and mental health counseling, and improved housing eligibility. Example: enrollment in Downtown Streets (DNTS) plus SJ & SCC programs. But most don’t avail themselves to rehab and expect indulgence rather than tough love. You evidently prefer 18+ months of living in wretched conditions rather than changing behavior. It’s difficult and most fail. But 40 years ago I decided to change my behavior and know many who’ve succeeded too.

          Shelter beds fill up, but service providers tell me they have ample space in various rehab programs. DNTS published results make this abundantly clear.

          I put “sanctioned” in quotes because authorities effectively treat them as such. Despite complaints, the encampments have been tolerated for years. I’ve had two SJPD chiefs tell me they won’t enforce municipal ordinances because “We don’t want to to be on Youtube”.

          We’ve had 9 reported homeless deaths in SJ this year. Blunt force trauma and stabbings were responsible, but none were exposure related. 4 deaths in SCC were attributed to exposure in 2013, none that I found in 2014, and one in 2015. It tough to make cause of death judgement calls.

          Can exposure be designated as the primary cause of death when a 70 year old homeless person had a high blood alcohol level, liver damage, other signs of poor health, and left the door open on a freezing night? Data doesn’t indicate that housing would have materially changed outcomes for any I’ve reviewed.

          Agree with “we are dying out here”. But apparently by choice, not circumstance.

  2. In a county of 1,800,000 people, 100 of them assembled to mourn the passing of 124 homeless people. And this county is supposed to be a stronghold of bleeding-heart progressives? Best not to hold candlelight vigils while Santana Row is open. Still, I think they could’ve drawn a much bigger crowd if they’d instead been memorializing Zephyr, the young City Hall falcon that died last month.

    That said, I promise I’ll do my part to increase the mourners by one if we can get death toll up over a thousand next year.

  3. In the video Johnette Villagomez seems fine. So what happened? According to the article she died in her car just a few hours later. But what of? Seems like kind of an important question. Would the much ballyhooed “Silicon Valley Triage Tool” have identified Johnette as being one of those who should be given priority for housing? Not unless she was already a chronic user of public services. If she’d been the sort of person who is disinclined to work the system and take advantage of every public giveaway program then she would have been given a curt “application rejected” by the great and compassionate computer.
    Randy Ruiz. Gilberto Garcia. Alejandro Sacarias. Victor Trejo. Ricardo Michel. Brandin Gaviola. Valentine Cortesosguera.. Maybe the Homeless Advocacy Industry can commission a team of software geniuses to write a program which will figure out what trait puts a homeless person most at risk of being murdered.

    There. How’s that for trolling S?

    • > Bless all the homeless!!!

      Kath:

      How many homeless would you like to have? I’m sure our local community leaders can arrange for more.

      Just place your order.

  4. Johnette was a coworker of mine at target 13 years ago where we became very good friends. She had a very kind heart she loved my children, she talked about how she always wanted children but she never had any of her own. She taught art in her younger years as a teacher. But because of circumstances and a bad relationship it put her on the street. I was saddened to hear of her passing, I have been trying to find her for the last few years.
    Johnette you may be gone but you’re not forgotten RIP my friend

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