SJ community prepares makeshift tombstones to memorialize homeless deaths

At least 240 unhoused people in Santa Clara County are being remembered through the Tombstone Project this year.

Amanda del Castillo Image
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Tombstones in SJ memorialize homeless deaths
The annual Tombstone Project, memorializing unhoused residents who have died on Santa Clara County streets, will soon be on display in San Jose.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Makeshift tombstones memorializing unhoused residents who have died on Santa Clara County streets, will soon be on display in San Jose.

It's all part of an annual project, bringing awareness to the hundreds of lives lost since last Dec. With a bit of spray paint and several strokes of a paint brush, pieces of styrofoam are transformed to resemble the tombstones.

"When you don't have the money, you do things like this," shelter resident Cheryl Fleming told ABC7 News. "And this is, I think, more memorable."

Fleming and others have dedicated days to completing this annual Tombstone Project. The team of volunteers is made up of currently and formerly unhoused people, their loved ones and homeless advocates.

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"That matters a lot," Shaunn Cartwright with the Unhoused Response Group said. "Because, you can bring in anybody to paint. But to have people that are (unhoused) - they're all telling their stories."

Cartwright said for most, these tombstones serve as the only visual markers to honor those who have died on our streets. She said it's a source of closure for many in the unhoused community.

"It's so hard when people are unhoused. Because you're just like, 'Oh my god, did you hear about Bob,'" she described. "Then it's like, yeah, and then you just move on. Because there isn't time to take time to mourn. You've gotta go find food, you've gotta go find water, you've gotta get swept."

Cartwright said last year they made a record 250 tombstones. This year, at least 240 unhoused people are being remembered.

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For Fleming, painting this year is even more personal. Her longtime friend Brenda Lee Cruz died in October.

"My boyfriend and I saw her the day before she died," she recalled. "And we stopped on Rogers Ave., where they turn in their recycle. And she had her little dog up on her driver's side window. It was so cute."

Getting emotional, Fleming said, "I can't say anymore..."

The tombstones will be on display at the annual Homeless Person's Interfaith Memorial Service on Dec. 21. Cartwright said there will be an official service at 12 p.m. at the Santa Clara County Government Center.

Reflecting on her work and her friend, Fleming said, "We put in our love. And somehow, I know she'll know."

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