“She is pretty, she is beautiful; she is the one who is the most dear to me.”
The speaker was Rose Gregorio, an advocate for Sunnyvale’s unhoused population, her voice breaking as she struggled to find the right words to describe her closest confidant and now-deceased friend—62-year-old unhoused Sunnyvale resident Deborah “Di” Giron.
Gregorio was one of nearly three dozen loved ones who gathered at Fair Oaks Park in early December in front of Di’s “home”—a black-and-blue tent at the back of the park, now decorated with lights, candles, crosses and prayers to celebrate and memorialize her life.
There, family members, friends and neighbors traveled from around the state to share heartfelt sentiments and memories of Di—stories that showed her generosity, compassion and resilient spirit.
“She never took advantage of anyone’s kindness. She was like the mother and the caregiver here,” said Gregorio, who lives minutes from the park. “She took care of her dog Papa better than herself. She made sure Papa was wrapped in a blanket and had food before she did. And she did the same for all her neighbors here too.”
Di died on Nov. 27 and since then has become a symbol to Sunnyvale’s unhoused population and advocates in their fight to keep residents of Fair Oaks Park encampment alive in wake of Covid-19 and threats of impending encampment sweeps from the city.
In early November, two weeks before Di’s death, the city of Sunnyvale put up sweep notices of plans to clear the encampment because it sat on a construction site for the park’s renovation.
Advocates like Gregorio were successful in stopping the sweep, but on Nov. 19, a fence went up surrounding the encampment—prepping it for another sweep attempt.
Now, almost two months later, advocates find themselves “fighting the same fight,” since the city put up another sweep notice in the beginning of January—this time giving encampment residents until the end of the month to clear the area.
So, about a dozen advocates and unhoused residents gathered in front of Sunnyvale City Hall on Jan. 11 to protest the sweep and demand better conditions for the houseless population.
“This is Di. She died in your city in Fair Oaks Park. And nobody communicated about putting that fence up,” Shaunn Cartwright, an advocate for the unhoused population in Santa Clara County, said while holding a pamphlet from Di’s memorial. “She is one of three [unhoused] people who died in Sunnyvale last year. That’s why we are here.”
Cartwright and other advocates said the sweeps on encampments are inhumane, especially as Covid-19 ravishes the unhoused population, leaving very few options to find shelter.
County hotels are full almost every night, and recent Covid-19 outbreaks at two homeless shelters have deterred individuals from staying there.
“Sweeps also tend to make people lose all their belongings because police throw everything away,” said Alpana Agarwal, a local organizer for Sunnyvale’s houseless community. “So where are they supposed to go?”
The city’s communications officer, Jennifer Garnett, who came out to listen to the concerns during Monday’s protest, said the sweep is necessary because the encampment sits on a construction site.
“We have to post notices because, as you see, it’s an active construction site. And that encampment area is needed for the park project,” Garnett said. “And so, at some point, we will have to close that area. We’re not going to do that until we have a solution in place.”
Gardner assured protesters outside of City Hall that a group of city leaders and partners are working diligently to find a place for encampment residents and said the group has been in talks with community partners, the county and even the church next to the park.
However, concrete solutions and a time frame for the decision to be made have not been arrived at.
“It’s impossible at this point [to set a deadline] because we do not know what the solutions are going to be,” Garnett said.
Advocates for the unhoused say they don’t oppose renovations to the 52-year-old park, which will include an inclusive playground, new sports fields with nighttime lighting and turf, a dog park and new picnic and restroom areas.
But with no solution in place and the Jan. 31 deadline quickly approaching, advocates worry about where the 25 residents at Fair Oaks Park encampment will go.
“All I’m hearing is ‘you got to go. ... I don’t know where you’re going to go, but you just can’t be here,’” Cartwright said. “The problem with that is then more people die on the streets, as we saw last year.”
The death toll for Santa Clara County's unhoused population in 2020 was more than 200 individuals—shattering the previous record. In 2019, there were 164 individuals who died, 132 in 2018 and 125 in 2017, according to data from the county medical examiner’s office.
One big reason for the increased number of deaths is Covid-19’s closure of such public spaces as libraries and park bathrooms, as well as limited shelter capacity due to social distancing guidelines.
Those facilities are used by unhoused folks to clean up and stay warm, Cartwright said.
But because Sunnyvale’s homeless population is relatively small compared to neighboring cities, Cartwright believes the city has the capacity and funding to house them.
Out of Santa Clara County’s nearly 8,000 unhoused people, Sunnyvale accounts for 422 people—nearly four times the city’s homeless population in 2017, according to the county’s 2019 homeless census and survey.
“Sunnyvale has the money to shelter 25 people [Fair Oaks Park encampment residents], there is no doubt about it,” Cartwright said. “If you are going to sweep the encampment, then you need to find another solution.”
More than 1,000 individuals have signed a petition, created by Gregorio’s daughter, Marile Magee, calling on Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein to halt the sweep.
“There shouldn’t be any more Di’s. People need to be communicated with. They need to be treated like human beings and spoken to and brought to the table and involved in communications,” Cartwright continued.
Friends and family of Di suspect she died from a heart attack because of her history of blood clots. She relied on a blood thinning medication, Coumadin, but her living situations made it difficult to refill the prescription. Those who would like to contribute to Di’s funeral services can do so here.