Number of tombstones grow at annual Santa Clara Co. event marking homeless deaths

An annual event to mourn homeless deaths in Santa Clara County has taken on new significance this year. Advocates say the trials of 2020 have put more people on the streets, meaning more people have died.

This is the worst they've seen it. Advocates have never set up this many tombstones before. Each represents a man, woman, or in one case an infant, who died on the streets in Santa Clara County.

"We're starting to run out of places that are big enough for this memorial," said homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright.

This year's homeless death toll: 197. That is a 22% increase from last year.

A 222% increase over five years.

Among the names are Kimberly Fial and John Paulson, killed in a stabbing at Grace Baptist Church.

"When the stressors of life become overwhelming, when people are scared. and they're not getting resources, resources are not being available for whatever reason, violence breaks out," says Pastor Dave Robinson of Grace Baptist.

And Covid is just adding to the problem. Some shelters are closed. Others can accept fewer people due to social distancing.

And then there's fear of the disease itself.

"Unhoused people don't want to go anywhere because its Covid roulette going to a shelter. And we're not doing anything about that," said Cartwright.

And advocates say with a tanking economy, there are simply more people on the streets. They estimate the number in Santa Clara County is approaching 10,000.

And they say the county and the city of San Jose, need to do more.

"Because there was no room at the inn for them, in a city that would not make space for them, in a city that closed shelters instead of opening shelters," said Reverend Jethroe Moore of the NAACP.

R.J. Ramsey says the situation is dire. He should know. After losing his job as a lawyer, he spent 10 years on the streets himself.

"What's changed from when I was out there is you have families out there now, you have children who think this is their way of life now, living in a tent," says Ramsey.

He says he fears for them, and fears there will be even more tombstones next year.

"I didn't think I was going to make it some nights. And what really happens is, and people don't understand this, it kills the spirit," Ramsey said.

The tombstones and memorial service are part of a national day of mourning for the homeless who have died.

It's held annually on the longest night of the year.