SANTA CLARA COUNTY saw a record high number of homeless deaths this past year, a somber reminder of the exacerbating housing crisis and inequality in one of the wealthiest regions in the nation.

The number of people who died on the street in the region has grown in the last few years. In 2020, the area reported a staggering number of 196 homeless deaths. This year’s number is yet to be finalized, but is well over 200 deaths — far worse than any year in the past decade, advocates say. Approximately 141 unhoused seniors in Santa Clara County have died this year.

“Most of them are preventable deaths,” homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright told San José Spotlight. “This year, more than any other year, we would go to camps and every camp was talking about people dying.”

More than half of those who died without a home this year were seniors, according to homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright. (Photo by Tran Nguyen/San Jose Spotlight)

At the downtown San Jose Peace and Justice Center last week, Cartwright and members of the Unhoused Response Group sat among stacks of tombstones with names of unhoused people who died this year.

For the last four years, the group has partnered with the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council to create a mock graveyard to honor the lives lost on Santa Clara County streets. Each tombstone, cut out of foam, bares the name of a resident who died without a home.

The memorial, scheduled annually on Dec. 21, is to call attention to the magnitude of the homelessness crisis — and the government’s continued failure to adequately address it.

“It’s also for unhoused people to have a place to come and say goodbye to the people that they’ve lost,” Cartwright said. “Most people can’t afford to bury people and attend funerals.”

Homeless activist Shaunn Cartwright writes the name and age of an unhoused resident who died in 2021. (Photo by Tran Nguyen/San Jose Spotlight)

The record number of homeless deaths comes as the county and city race to provide more interim housing by converting motel and hotel rooms, and find safe parking sites across the South Bay. In September, San Jose unveiled an ambitious goal of reducing homelessness by 20 percent by next year by building more prefabricated modular homes. Santa Clara County has a plan to “end” homelessness by 2025, but those plans have drawn much skepticism.

Drug overdoses and health conditions related to drug use continue to be leading causes of deaths in the area, advocate RJ Ramsey said. The area saw fewer than 10 deaths caused by COVID-19.

Engulfing chasms

More than half of those who died without a home this year were seniors, with the oldest being 77 years old, Cartwright said. Seniors living on the streets are particularly vulnerable to weather conditions and violence — and there’s not enough services to help them.

“It’s not even gaps — it’s canyons in the services,” Cartwright said. “These people are falling into them and they’re dying.”

Cartwright and Ramsey criticized San Jose for failing to open warming shelters ahead of an atmospheric river storm this past weekend. On Tuesday, the San Jose City Council approved two warming shelters to operate this winter that will open Dec. 20.

Homeless advocate RJ Ramsey holds up a tombstone for the upcoming memorial. (Photo by Tran Nguyen/San Jose Spotlight)

No hope

With the pandemic raging on, ongoing encampment sweeps and promises of new housing yet to be fulfilled, morale is at an all time low, Ramsey said.

“Nobody wants to live out in the cold, try to pee in the bush, scrounge for food every day, have your clothes be smelly and carry around all your personal belongings,” Ramsey told San José Spotlight. “But there’s no place to go.”

Jake Tonkel, who ran for the District 6 City Council seat last year, was among several people painting tombstones. He started volunteering with the Unhoused Response Group at the beginning of the pandemic.

“We need lots of policy changes on the federal, state and local levels in order to mitigate this disaster,” Tonkel said.

Jake Tonkel, who ran for the San Jose City Council District 6 seat in 2020, was among several volunteers with the memorial this year. (Photo by Tran Nguyen/San Jose Spotlight)

Standing among names of people who died this past year, some he knew personally, Ramsey, 55, said he could easily have been one of those tombstones. He experienced homelessness for years before finding affordable housing in San Jose.

“It hurts a lot. I think about that all the time,” Ramsey said.

Contact Tran Nguyen at or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.