A man in a neon vest grins with his thumbs up. Behind him are dozens of full garbage bags.
James, an unhoused man who died in August in Castro Valley, was active in an organization that cleans areas by the freeway. In this photo, he'd hauled bags of trash for disposal. Credit: Yon Hardisty

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Equal parts a call to action and an opportunity for catharsis, Alameda County’s annual memorial for people who’ve died while homeless drew some 150 mourners Wednesday. 

They gathered virtually to honor people whose lives ended on the streets, in cars, and in shelters this year, and to highlight the conditions that cause so much premature loss. 

“A responsible and just community must work to be closely aware of the deaths of all its members, to strive to learn from those deaths, and implement policies and practices to reduce preventable deaths,” said David Modersbach, grants manager with Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless.

Wednesday’s event coincided with similar gatherings across the country for National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Modersbach and his staff have attempted to track and analyze every homeless death in the county. Last year, they released their first report, finding that 800 people died without housing from 2018-2020, at a rate more than four times greater than the general population’s. The number of deaths has increased each year documented.

A new report will come out in a month or so, Modersbach said, revealing that at least 348 unhoused people died in 2021. A majority died unattended, outside of a medical setting like a hospital or clinic. The leading cause was drug overdoses, accounting for 101 fatalities, but unhoused people are more likely to die from virtually any cause of death—including acute and chronic medical conditions, violence, and suicide. 

“The experience of homelessness is an indicator that you will die earlier than the general population,” Modersbach explained during the memorial, as an anonymous list of all the unhoused individuals who died in 2021 scrolled across participants’ screens. The ages of many of the deceased ranged from 30 to 60.

The reporting efforts are a year behind because the county doesn’t have an office that tracks homeless deaths in real time, Modersbach said. As a result, social services staff have to match up different data sources in order to identify and confirm each case. 

“We count on the police and sheriff’s department, an elected official with untrained coroners, to do that work, and they don’t really do that work,” Modersbach said. “Our county needs a medical examiner’s office. We’re doing this work in place of that.”

Crushing losses of friends, partners, patients, and neighbors

David Modersbach spoke about his office’s efforts to track homeless deaths while the 2021 cases were displayed on the screen. Credit: Zoom screenshot

Many of the attendees at Wednesday’s virtual memorial don’t need to wait for the 2022 report to validate the losses they experienced. 

“In the unhoused community, the right to enjoy life is absent,” said Melissa Moore, an outreach worker with Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center who was previously unhoused herself for seven years. “I’ve lost people very close to me, some of them I lived with, and some clients.” 

This year, one of those losses was James, a former partner who’d remained a beloved friend, she said. 

Another memorial attendee, Yon Hardisty, was also close to James, and wrote a tribute to him in the event’s chat window.

“James held a lot of pride for the land he was on,” Hardisty told The Oaklandside after the memorial. “He transformed the way I saw dehoused people.”

Hardisty and his wife have a nonprofit that has “adopted” highway sections from Caltrans, regularly going out with groups of youth and volunteers to clean areas along the I-580 W corridor in Castro Valley. James was among the many people who live in tents and vehicles along the freeway, and when the organization was cleaning up a section two years ago, he came over to introduce himself and offer to help.

“We became fast friends, and he was a regular,” Hardisty said. “He was living in various places but would jump on a bike and meet up with us.” He was dedicated to the work, but was also “just great for sitting down and talking about life.” 

James, whose last name we couldn’t confirm, took on leadership roles with ease. He helped enable and promote a program where unhoused communities pack up bags of trash, which the nonprofit purchases from them. One day this summer, Hardisty and James hauled dozens of these bags together, and James posed, grinning, for a picture in front of them.

“That picture was powerful for me, because it said, ‘I’m here,’” Hardisty said. “Lots of [unhoused] people have been here longer than I have, but we tend to forget they’re part of our community.” 

Shortly after that, in August, James died. While the cause is unclear, his last week was a hard one. Turned away from a shelter one night, James took BART back to where he slept outdoors, getting beat up by a group of young people who tried to rob him. Some days later he expressed to Hardisty that he was still feeling bad pain.

Life on the streets is always challenging, but the national memorial day is scheduled on the winter solstice—the longest night of the year—because the cold, dark months can be the hardest.

“We get more requests for socks and gloves this time of year than we do for housing,” said Dr. Jason Reinking (“Dr. Jay”) from Lifelong Medical’s Trust Health Center in downtown Oakland, speaking at the memorial. The holiday season also “brings a lot of sorrow and sadness for a lot of our patients and clients who’ve had friendships and family relationships broken over the years.” 

The clinic saw 44 of its 2,000 patients die this year, Reinking said. “These folks are passing away at younger ages, disproportionately because of overdoses.” 

The unhoused population in Alameda County is also disproportionately Black and male, and those disparities are reflected in the death data.

“The root of this issue is a lack of housing,” Reinking said. 

The memorial made clear that the memories of many of the people who died this year and in previous years are still powerful for those who knew them. Many of the deceased have left legacies carried on by others.

That’s true of James, said Hardisty. Recently he visited James’ old spot by the freeway and saw a couple who lives there now raking the leaves—beautifying their home, just like James did.

Correction: David Modersbach’s title was previously listed as director of Health Care for the Homeless. He’s the grants manager for the agency.

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.