Makeshift tombstones mark annual memorial of unhoused SJ residents who have died

For most, the tombstones serve as the only markers honoring those who have died on the streets.

Amanda del Castillo Image
Thursday, December 22, 2022
Makeshift tombstones mark annual memorial of homeless deaths in SJ
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Makeshift tombstones were displayed in San Jose to serve as a visual reminder of the hundreds of homeless people who have died on South Bay streets.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- December 21 marks National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. In San Jose, makeshift tombstones were displayed on Wednesday, to serve as a visual reminder of the hundreds of unhoused residents who have died on South Bay streets.

The annual memorial comes at a time when the nation's homelessness crisis is mounting.

Outside the Santa Clara County building, and organized by the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, 246 hand-painted foam tombstones were put on display.

The event was all part of the 9th annual Homeless Person's Interfaith Memorial Service, which put the spotlight on each member of the county's unhoused community who has died on South Bay streets since last Dec.

"We don't want to have these memorials, basically, anymore," Sukhdev Bainiwal with the Sikh Community of San Jose said. He elaborated, no deaths would mean no need for such a display.

RELATED: SJ community prepares makeshift tombstones to memorialize homeless deaths

Instead, he said the vigil is a visual reminder that work is far from finished. This year's tombstone count is only four shy of last year's record.

ABC7 News reporter Amanda del Castillo recently sat down for a one-on-one with outgoing Mayor Sam Liccardo who addressed the homelessness crisis. It's one he has long-considered the city's biggest failure.

"If you asked any mayor of any big city in the western United States, they'd probably say the same thing, which is we all wish we could've done more on homelessness," he said.

Bainiwal told ABC7 News, "This is not about only the politicians taking care of this. We, all the nonprofits, need to get together, helping them find a solution, helping the unhoused find a house. Where they can have a dignified life."

The names and ages on the tombstones reflect people who died of what organizers consider to be "preventable causes." Volunteer, advocate, and former unhoused resident Jerome Shaw pointed to hypothermia, untreated health issues, victims having being hit by cars and more.

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Shaw said these issues aren't necessarily driven by so-called homeless stereotypes, rather circumstances.

"People fall on bad circumstances," Shaw said. "Because I wasn't a drug addict. I wasn't a thief. It's just, I lost a job and it just started a downward spiral."

For most, the tombstones serve as the only markers honoring those who have died on our streets. They are a source of closure for many in the unhoused community.

"We just wanted to make sure that these individuals that did die, that they get the proper recognition that they deserve," Shaw said. "Because a lot of people don't have burials, may not even be picked up by their relatives."

Bainiwal shared, "These are people. These are human beings."

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