Floyd Brown, who passed away in Berkeley in early December, plays with a dog at a Berkeley RV camp where he lived. Credit: Yesica Prado

​​Friends and service providers gathered virtually Tuesday to celebrate the lives of the unhoused residents who died in Alameda County this year, and encourage each other in the difficult, often painful work of trying to end homelessness throughout the region.

Against candle-lit Zoom backdrops, they mourned loved ones and condemned a system that allows “preventable deaths.” 

Over the years, “I personally have lost close to 20 people, people who I called family,” said Melissa Moore, an outreach worker who was homeless for several years herself.

“We need to be a loud voice for advocacy and policy change,” added Moore, one of the several speakers who became choked up during their comments.

The event was an annual gathering hosted by the county on national Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Similar vigils were held throughout the Bay Area, including in San Jose and Marin.

It is unclear how many unhoused people died locally in 2021, but Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless is preparing to release a report documenting 809 deaths between 2018 and 2020.

The annual number increased each of those years, with 346 unhoused people dying in 2020, said David Modersbach, the lead author of the report. Modersbach said the figures are low estimates that don’t capture every person who died while experiencing homelessness.

Previous data released by the county has estimated the annual numbers of deaths of unhoused people at much lower levels. For example, last year the county estimated around 137 deaths in 2019, whereas the new report estimates closer to 246 deaths that year.

The new report went beyond the cases that are processed by the coroner’s office, relying on additional sources of data and community death reports. 

“We must register and give meaning to every homeless death,” said Modersbach at the memorial. “That community responsibility really rests with the county, our local government.” The upcoming report will be the first of its kind in Alameda County. 

According to Modersbach, unintentional overdoses are the leading cause of death among unhoused people in the county, representing a quarter of those tracked in the report. Chronic medical conditions, drivers hitting pedestrians, and homicides were also common causes. 

Homelessness puts people at greater risk for death, both by creating new health problems and exacerbating existing conditions, often from stress or exposure to the elements. The average lifespan of an unhoused person is years shorter than the rest of the population, many studies have found.

Drug overdoses due to opioids like fentanyl have become widespread among people living on the street over the course of the pandemic, with cities across California raising the alarm over an increase in deaths.

In a winter season marked by storms, an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of a new variant, a solemn mood has persisted among many unhoused residents and those who provide services to them. Tuesday’s memorial offered a space to remember the lightness and humanity of people who used to live on the streets.

In Berkeley, friends and neighbors are currently coping with the loss of seven homeless people who died over the last four months. While the Alameda County coroner’s office hasn’t yet confirmed their causes of death, at least three are believed to have died of overdoses. They were musicians, social butterflies and people who held the community together and offered support, even when they had little to give.

Tuesday’s memorial emphasized love and compassionate care as a salve to the trying mental and physical conditions many homeless people endure living on the streets.

“We won’t see the end of homelessness in our lifetime, and we cannot end all the structural racism, violence and trauma that our patients endure, although we must try,” said Dr. Aislinn Bird, staff psychiatrist at the LifeLong Medical TRUST Clinic in Oakland. “What we do have control over is how we treat and care for our patients, each other and ourselves.” 

“Love is powerful and radical,” she added. “We don’t often talk about love in the medical field, and it’s one of the more impactful tools that we have.” 

This story was updated with additional information after publication.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.