The number of homeless deaths in Santa Cruz County has reached a new high. The fifty people who died homeless in 2017 were honored in a memorial service Tuesday.
Annual homeless memorials typically coincide with the Winter Solstice (December 21st) because it’s the longest night of the year. About 150 ceremonies will be held across the country, according to Phil Kramer, Executive Director of the Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz.
It was standing room only at the ceremony there in Santa Cruz. Community members and homeless advocates listened quietly as the names of the people who died homeless this year in Santa Cruz County were read aloud.
“I have really mixed feelings about today. I’m really glad that we are all here and we are together and we are taking time to reflect, remember and hopefully feel a kinship with each other,” Kramer told the group.
“But of course I wish we didn’t need to do this at all. I wish we didn’t need to have a homeless memorial. Having people die on the streets of our community is nothing less than a failure measured in human tragedy.”
On the far wall, brightly colored sheets of paper listed each person’s name and age. The oldest among them was Kathryn Cline. At 86 years old, she was living in her car. She died in the hospital. The youngest was Jaime Espinoza. The homeless 26 year old died on the Pajaro River levy in Watsonville.
Matthew Nathanson knew just about everyone on the list. He’s a Public Health Nurse with the County’s Homeless Persons Health Project. Nathanson also writes the annual report on homeless deaths. The number is up from 37 in 2016 to 50 in 2017.
“Seeing a big jump this year makes me wonder the why of it. I don’t think we fully understand it. Some of it is the homeless population in general has increased,” said Nathanson.
“I also noted that there was a significant increase in the number of people who were over 60 who died, which either you could say ‘well people are living longer’, but I think more it also is a marker that more people later in life are becoming homeless.”
He said drugs and alcohol were a huge factor in many of the deaths.
“I think there are solutions. I think as a community we just have to decide to put the resources into them. I think a piece would be to really increase the funding and resources for drug and alcohol treatment,” said Nathanson.
He said right now when people come to him for help with substance abuse, often he can only offer a spot on the waiting list for existing programs.
Homeless is California is on the rise. According a recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, California had a 13.7% increase in its homeless population between 2016 and 2017.
The number of estimated homeless in the state is 134,278. That accounts for 25% of the U.S.’s homeless population.