SAN JOSE (KPIX) – Deaths of homeless people living in Santa Clara County have more than quadrupled since 2000.
Public records obtained by KPIX show a staggering increase from 31 deaths in 2000, to 166 in 2019. Every year the body count climbs.
“That’s what I’m afraid of, dying out here,” Teresa Wilson said.
Wilson is currently unhoused. She just entered her 50’s and with this new decade comes new health concerns.
“I’m in pain every day, I have arthritis… my body out here has changed, it’s gotten weaker,” she said.
“It’s unacceptable,” says Andrea Urton, the CEO of HomeFirst, about the spike in deaths in recent decades.
HomeFirst serves more than 5,000 unhoused individuals in Santa Clara County annually. She attributes the rising death toll to the aging homeless population.
“So people are aging and as they age they’re contracting diseases, heart issues, diabetes, lung issues, and unfortunately they’re dying,” Urton said.
As KPIX reported previously on Project Home, more people than ever before are aging into homelessness. Back in the 90’s only 11 percent of homeless adults were over the age of 50. Now more than 50 percent are living on the streets, and more than half of those people became homeless for the first time after turning 50.
“Most people in Santa Clara County are living on the edge, check to check and only $400 away from becoming unhoused themselves,” Urton said.
“Well, every year it’s harder on my body yet,” said 86-year-old Jaime Arias.
Arias says he had nowhere to go after being acquitted and released from prison.
“It was difficult, yes. It was in the middle of the winter,” Arias said.
Fifty-four-year-old Jose Mendez says an expensive surgery caused him to lose housing.
“I had colon cancer and they took my stomach out and got a scar right here,” Mendez said.
While 21 percent of homeless deaths from 2019 were caused by alcohol and drug overdoses, 25 percent were caused by chronic illness alone. Twenty-two percent of people who died while experiencing homelessness died from a combination of drug use and chronic illness.
The rest of the deaths reflect the violence of life on the street, from gunshot wounds to skull fractures or cold weather where help arrived too late.
“I think about that all the time, ‘what if I have a stroke? Will they notice? Will anybody hear me?’ I want to feel safe, I want to be safe. I don’t feel safe, I don’t,” Wilson said.
HomeFirst stopped making tombstones for the deceased years ago because it got too expensive. Now instead they hold a memorial service each year in which the names of the deceased are read aloud. Wilson says that’s one thing that keeps her going, keeping her name off that list.
“That’s the first goal of not becoming a statistic out here dying,” she said.
Santa Clara County’s Medical Examiner says most of the time family members of unhoused individuals can’t afford funerals, so unclaimed bodies are cremated. Each cremation costs the county $500.