The 14th annual Interfaith Candlelight Vigil on Sunday began as a solemn march at the nondescript San Diego Rescue Mission on downtown’s Elm Street. Before the actual vigil, held on the steps of the County Administration Center, the procession made two fellowship stops at downtown churches. Local leaders in the effort to end homelessness—though nary a politician—were joined on the march by a choir and by Rescue Mission live-in clients. Those clients, former street people, carried 91 pairs of empty shoes to the steps of the county building. The footwear was similar to shoes we all wear—work boots, tennies, slip-on Skechers. But these shoes were all toe-tagged, as if by the coroner’s office. The tags bore the names of homeless men and women who died on the streets of San Diego over the last year (from Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015). Ninety-one in all.
At the county building there were speeches (though none political in nature) and the choir sang. The shoes—borrowed from local thrift shops and not the actual kicks from the feet of deceased homeless people—were interspersed in a display with battery-operated candles.
On one level, the shoes acted as a “scared-straight mechanism” for the in-recovery clients, Rescue Mission president Herb Johnson says. “Those shoes definitely got heavier for clients as they carried them through the street. People thought about the fact that this could have been their own shoes that somebody else was carrying in a march.”
The other poignant takeaway from this year’s vigil was that the number of people who died on the streets spiked so much over last year. The previous count was 55, meaning the number of homeless deaths jumped up 65 percent. Over the previous 10 years, the number of annual deaths had ranged between 50 and 78.
The question is: Why did the number of deaths increase at such an alarming rate? (Not that our elected officials seem alarmed, however, or managed to attend or send a staffer to the mass memorial of 91 severely at-risk people who died alone on the streets in our neighborhoods.)
Speculation is the most definite form of explanation available for a staggering death-rate increase in a bloc of influence-lacking nonvoters. On one hand, the number of homeless people in San Diego has grown—to 8,742, as per the annual Point-in-Time Count done on January 23, 2015. And it could be assumed that the more homeless people there are, the more who are going to die. However, though homelessness downtown reportedly jumped 26 percent over last year, the overall increase this year was just about 3 percent countywide.
Another factor that could account for an increase in homeless deaths is the overall aging of the population of people on the streets, says Tom Theisen, board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. Being elderly and homeless, he notes, is a double-barreled burden.
Another hypothetical theory focuses on the fact that about half of the 91 deaths (45) were ruled accidental, a broad category that includes “blunt trauma.” Could it be that some street people are getting more violent and are killing each other?
It’s likely a combination of several factors. Definitive explanations would be helpful.
Meanwhile, a national effort that has touched San Diego was launched recently by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to eradicate homelessness, especially among this country’s veterans of war. Some cities (Houston) and even states (Utah) have seen drastic reductions. The success stories around the country seem to have one common factor: strong political leadership and will.
In San Diego we’ve heard politicians promise to eliminate all homelessness among men, women, children and veterans. And the logical and obvious solution is a coordinated effort of outreach that’s backed by political muscle—not by tacit observation from the bunker while the death toll escalates.