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.”