ROW AFTER ROW of makeshift tombstones filled a plaza outside a county building in San Jose, each with the name of a homeless person who died on the streets of Silicon Valley this past year.

“If we don’t do this, then people just don’t recognize the enormity of the problem and how many people are dying,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a longtime homeless advocate who helped create the tombstones.

On each one of the 196 tombstones, a flower was painted above each name and age, signifying the person’s ethnicity based on the color of the flower.

The event started with a virtual news conference hosted by Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, an organization that promotes understanding among religious communities, featuring key speakers and representatives from various religious groups.

YouTube video

The memorial has evolved over the years since its establishment in 2014, according to a pastor who coordinated the memorial.

“It started as an interfaith memorial service in front of (San Jose) City Hall. This year part of the memorial service is online only due to COVID-19,” said Andrew Bear, a board member of Silicon Valley Interreligious Council.

Bear says the organization also distributed supplies, such as sleeping bags and tarps, and served meals to the community, along with the memorial.

According to the Santa Clara County’s coroner’s office, 196 homeless people died between Dec. 1, 2019 and Nov. 30, 2020.

Of the 196 deceased, there were 105 people of color, 87 seniors and an infant. That represents a 22% increase over last year’s homeless deaths of 161 people. Homeless deaths dropped slightly to 138 in 2018 after reaching 157 people in 2017.

“When I drove here this morning to put the tombstones up, my windshield was completely covered in ice. So I wonder how many people died last night. The temperatures are so cold at night,” Cartwright said. “These are enormous increases and it’s clear that the city and county is not handling this at all. This year there were no warming centers and the weather is freezing at night.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic is still surging in the community, Cartwright says it only contributed to less than 5% of the deaths this year.

She’s pushed the city and county to provide more resources, such as tiny homes, to keep people warm and prevent homeless deaths.

Homeless resident RJ Ramsey puts up a chart near the makeshift tombstones. (Photo by Eugene Luu/San Jose Spotlight)

RJ Ramsey, a former homeless resident who helped organize the event, says he’s currently housed by Abode Services, a homeless organization.

“It took 7 years to get housed but I am glad to have four 4 walls and a bathroom,” Ramsey said. ”It’s very so easy to fall into homelessness and difficult to get out.”

San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra visited the tombstones and says seeing the 196 names sends a powerful message.

“It shows us that we live in a broken society,” he said. “This should not be the reality. It’s a shame for all of us. We have to continue to do better.”

Kalra advocated for building more shelters and transitional housing, such as tiny homes.

“We continue to have folks in the neighborhood that want to combat homelessness but also don’t want those services in their own backyard,” he said. “Give them a roof over their heads and the services. Not only is it cheaper for the taxpayer, but it brings all of us a sense of ownership over this issue that is a longterm solution.”

Contact Eugene Luu at or follow @StoriesOfEugene on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.