San Jose records first death of homeless resident in 2020

San Jose officials marked a grim statistic Tuesday morning. That city recorded its first death of a homeless resident in 2020. This comes on the heels of an increase in homeless deaths in 2019.

As the busy Tuesday morning commute rolled past, residents barely noticed the activity at North 2nd and Saint John streets. There on the sidewalk, lay the latest homeless person to die in the elements.

“Mr. Cortez was his name. I found out who it was just this morning. I’ve seen him many times,” said Pastor Scott Wagers of CHAM Deliverance Ministry, who came to the scene and watched Santa Clara County coroner investigators remove the body.

First responders said the victim, officially a “John Doe” at this point, likely succumbed during the overnight hours. The area, across the street from Saint James Park, is popular with dozens of homeless residents.

“I just dropped off some food and I ate and we were talking and laughing. He was eating and he was pretty calm. But who knows what happened to him,” said Yolanda Gutierrez, a homeless resident who was with the victim just before he passed away.

Cortez’s passing marks the first homeless death of the new year. Advocates said last year, there were 161 homeless deaths, up 200 percent since 2011. A memorial service for each victim was held over the holidays at the Boccardo intake shelter.

“In 1999 we took the first statistics on homeless deaths, (and) the number was 33. So now the numbers here are approaching that of San Francisco or some of the other major cities in the United States,” said Wagers.

San Jose housing officials say two overnight warming centers, provide access to beds, meals and the showers. But the facilities require reservations or a referral, according to Ragan Henninger, the department’s deputy director.

“It’s heartbreaking when someone has to die on the streets. So this winter, we’ve actually changed our overnight warming stations so that they’re open nightly,” she said. Added Scott Wagers, “San Jose, Santa Clara County, these other cities, we’ve got to step up our game. I mean these are people that I know, and they’re dying.”

Wagers suggests using vacant buildings to house some of the homeless, which could prevent some of their deaths. The type of empty building Cortez died in front of, as life and commuters rolled on by.