Even among people who know and work with San Francisco’s homeless population, death can be a surprise.
Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, helps put together a community count for the annual homeless death memorial and regularly comes across names of people she thought were alive or has difficulty remembering their passing. One of those is Neil Taylor, a veteran whose walker was trashed during the city’s 2016 Super Bowl encampment sweeps, and who died in April 2017. “He was like my buddy,” says Cutler, who regularly checked on him during outreach.
Taylor is one of nearly 400 people who died between 2016 and 2018 while living on the street, according to a city report released earlier this year. A vigil to honor people who experienced homelessness, going on for more than 25 years, is planned for Dec. 19 starting at 6 p.m., preceded by a procession to City Hall at 4 p.m. As Cutler continues to tally up the count for this year, she remains on the lookout for people she worked with as kids and who are now adults.
“Homelessness really impacts someone’s lifespan,” Cutler says. “Just think of the impact sleep deprivation has. There’s so many levels of trauma and different health impacts that someone’s experiencing.”
That’s why Cutler makes a point to count people living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units and others who have experienced homelessness but may not anymore. By the community’s count for December 2017 to December 2018, they counted 240 deaths while the city tallied 135.
Dr. Barry Zevin, who authored the report and provides homeless people with medical care through the Department of Public Health, does think the aging effects of homelessness should be further researched but that it may require efforts from others. Most of his time is spent taking care of the living and finding ways to prevent deaths through this count, which informs Cutler’s community count.
“The Department of Public Health and Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing are not looking at, in a systematic way, what happens to the people who were formerly homeless and [are] now housed — and maybe we should,” says Zevin, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCSF. “But I know that we are actually getting most [deaths] that I think was a person experiencing homelessness.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office forwards Zevin cases throughout the year that involve people with no fixed address, are indigent, or other circumstances. That includes a natural cause of death that may be linked to homelessness — but not someone who has spent a month or more with an established tenancy.
Zevin’s report, which will be updated in March, helps connect the dots for prevention. Accidents are attributed to 53 percent of deaths among homeless individuals, including 35 percent being unintentional overdoses, while 30 percent of deaths are from natural causes. Homicides account for 11 percent of deaths and suicide makes up 4 percent.
This has given the Department of Homelessness data it can use when talking to other agencies, like SFMTA’s Vision Zero team, about how to prevent homeless folks from being fatally hit by drivers, or tracking meth use and overdose. Still, Zevin doesn’t expect the same rigorous method for a community count, which primarily serves to remember those who died.
“The memorial that we do every year is an extremely meaningful event,” says Zevin. “We lose people that we know all year. Having that sense that we’re not doing this alone, we’ve got a community of people who are sharing this sense of concern is truly moving to me every year. At a basic human level, memorializing people who might not be memorialized any other way is extremely important.”
Cutler has people who are experiencing homelessness themselves read off some names of the dead, as well as community groups who may have known them. Homeless Youth Alliance, Hamilton Families, Mission Neighborhood Resource Centers, The Gubbio Project, Episcopal Community Services, and St. Anthony’s are some of the service providers who both inform the count and are part of the vigil reading.
Hospitality House will be remembering Eddie Sanchez, who was part of their art program for 10 years, and died in November. He was 60 years old, says the program’s manager Janet Williams.
“Eddie was a classic San Franciscan artist,” Williams says. “From Haight Ashbury to SoMa, he would sell his political and mischievous cartoon art and make people smile with his personality. Not being very shy, he would happily share a poem or his harmonica playing with a crowd. He loved his family, friends and San Francisco dearly. His colorful and kind spirit will be very missed.”
For Cutler and others who provide services to people experiencing homelessness, death looms every day but is oftentimes what motivates them to keep doing the work needed to prevent more people from dying.
“What we’re fighting for is to save people’s lives so people aren’t suffering and dying on our streets,” Cutler says, adding, “so we don’t have to have a vigil at the end of the year like this. Nobody should die that way.”
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @idamoj.