Monday evening at the San Diego Civic Center Plaza, a crowd of roughly 50 religious folks, social-service workers and sympathetic onlookers gathered for about an hour for a candlelight vigil in honor of 108 homeless people who've died in San Diego County during the past year-up 70 percent from the 60 confirmed deaths of homeless citizens last year.
Under the auspices of the second annual “homeless day of remembrance,” decedents' names were read aloud, 10 at a time, by representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist faiths who each gave an invocation before reading their list of names. Rabbi Alexis Roberts, for example, sang and read the Jewish prayer of mourning and consolation. A Vietnam veteran also read 10 names.
Amid the kickoff of the holiday season and the upcoming opening of the severely bed-short winter shelters, the ceremony was intended to be a somber reminder of the realities of street life-or, as Rev. Mark Earl put it, “We remember tonight the homeless who are criminalized and ticketed for sleeping on the streets and ignored by the general population.”
Though the San Diego City Council had earlier that day discussed preparations for the winter emergency shelter, no councilmembers showed up for the 5:30 p.m. service.
Janet Enright, an analyst with the San Diego County Medical Examiner, compiled the list of 13 women and 95 men, found dead between Oct. 1, 2002 and Sept. 30, 2003 and deemed homeless by medical examiner investigators. Enright said that oftentimes individuals will have on them a benefit card or a shelter ID card that shows they are homeless. “Many times they are ‘found' dead at a campsite,” she said, an indication of homelessness.
The oldest of the 108 people was 70, the youngest only 19. Listed causes of death were gruesome, tragic and preventable. Only 26 of the 108 died in a hospital. Most were found dead in alleys, on streets and sidewalks or in motel rooms.
Thirty-seven of the deaths were deemed “natural.” Of those, four individuals died from acute pneumonia, the average age among them only 48. All four were found dead in what's described as an “open area.” Two men died of complications from diabetes within a day of each other; one was found in an open area, the other in a utility room.
The list reveals that heart disease is the most common form of natural death among the homeless, claiming the lives of 17 of the 108. Other causes of death included cerebral and intestinal hemorrhaging, pulmonary embolism and lung cancer. The victim of the latter, a 63-year-old man, was found dead in a camper on Valentine's Day.
Of the 54 deaths deemed “accidental,” alcohol and drug overdose was the most pervasive killer-11 people died from intoxication, 19 from drug overdose and six from a combination of drugs and alcohol. For some, the level of drugs found in their system is considerable: one 49-year-old female was found dead from a combination of morphine, hydrocordone (an opiate similar to morphine) and the tranquilizer Xanax. Another individual combined heroin, alcohol and diazepam.
This past July and August, four homeless men died from blunt-force injuries, all deemed accidental, within 10 days of each other.
Three deaths were ruled homicides and seven were ruled suicides, including one 52-year-old man who stepped in front of a train on March 13.
The list includes two John Does and a Jane Doe. One John Doe was found March 19 in an open area, the cause of death undetermined from skeletal remains. The other John Doe, 32, was found Dec. 27, 2002 in a semi-trailer, dead from alcohol poisoning. Jane Doe, 43, was found in an open area on Aug. 21, her cause of death undetermined.
Enright said that most of the time the medical examiner is able to track down a next of kin. If no next of kin is found, the county pays for the burial.
Homeless deaths in San Diego County Oct. 1, 2002 through Sept. 30, 2003
108 total deaths 5 decedents under age 30 54 decedents 50 or older Heroin drug most common in overdose February month with most deaths (15) October month with least deaths (3) 4 Deaths deemed the result of “acute and chronic” alcohol abuse 1 Death from ingesting isopropanol (rubbing) alcohol 63 number of bodies found post-mortem
Source: San Diego County Medical Examiner