Bay Area/ San Jose/ Community & Society
Published on December 24, 2020
Temporary tombstones displayed in San Jose to honor the 196 homeless people who died in the county this yearPhoto by Steve Knutson on Unsplash

In a year with staggering death tolls, it can be easy to get lost in the numbers and forget that each number represents a son, daughter, or neighbor. The Silicon Valley Interreligious Council (SiVIC) is helping to give people a sense of how the unhoused community in Santa Clara County is affected by both their state of homelessness and the current COVID pandemic with a sobering visual display. 

Each of the 196 unhoused persons who died in the county is memorialized with a tombstone in San Jose's McEntee Plaza that displays their name, age, and a painted flower. The stunning sight provides passersby a quantifiable view of the crisis in the unhoused community. 

According to the San Jose Spotlight, this year's display marked an increase of 35 deaths in the homeless community since 2019. This is the seventh year that SiVIC has displayed tombstones to represent the deaths in the unhoused community. 

Due to COVID regulations, the ceremony was held remotely on Youtube. The forty-seven-minute memorial featured leaders from an array of religious institutions and non-profits serving the Silicon Valley.

"We come together today, the longest night of the year to honor their lives to this sad reality in our community," Girish Shah, chair of the SiVIC board, said in the video presentation. 

The death rate of people experiencing homelessness is growing throughout the Bay Area. Surprisingly, COVID wasn't a significant cause of death from Jan. to Sept. of 2020 in homeless communities. Only four of the 560 homeless people deaths were due to COVID, according to Mercury News. The pandemic didn't help the trend as many unhoused people do not have adequate healthcare access. 

The lack of stable housing complicates seemingly ordinary issues for people in various states of homelessness. In Santa Clara County, homeless people died from various causes, ranging from being hit by cars, drownings, drug overdoses, and violence. 

Two of the more devastating deaths occurred at a church offering meals and housing to people who don't have proper shelter. Mercury News reported that Kimberly Fial and John "J Dubb" Paulson died after being stabbed at Grace Baptist Church, where they were staying for the night. Fial frequently volunteered at the homeless shelter while she was staying there. 

Fernando Jose Lopez was arrested and charged with murdering the two guests. Police allege he stabbed a total of 5 people. Lopez was a guest and volunteer at the church's homeless shelter.

The church has resumed offering shelter after the deaths, but with increased security. As winter approaches, unhoused persons are at greater risks of being exposed to the elements. 

A large tombstone outlines the demographics of the unhoused persons who died in the past year, showing the inequity of homelessness. Of the 196, over half were people of color, and 87 were seniors. According to Mercury News, the youngest death was an infant, and the oldest was 80 years old. The number of unhoused persons dying in Santa Clara County has risen over 200% since SiVIC has been memorializing unhoused persons for the past seven years. 

In addition to the memorial, the religious leaders used the event to increase awareness and advocate for policy changes that help those who are unhoused find permanent shelter. 

The virtual ceremony included musical performances, prayers from different religions, and a somber reading of the name of each person who died without having a place to call home.