Another ‘startling’ record: homeless deaths in Sacramento County reach new high

Watch memorial for homeless man who recently died in Sacramento

Loaves and Fishes’ Joe Smith, center, joins hands with people experiencing homelessness during a prayer for Jeff Canning, a homeless man who died on July 8, at his memorial on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 in Sacramento. Homeless deaths increased 6% in 2018.
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Loaves and Fishes’ Joe Smith, center, joins hands with people experiencing homelessness during a prayer for Jeff Canning, a homeless man who died on July 8, at his memorial on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 in Sacramento. Homeless deaths increased 6% in 2018.

Joe Smith sat in his office Friday, his thoughts focused on the same topic it is on many Friday mornings – mourning the loss of a homeless man he had befriended, trying to find the right words to deliver at his memorial.

Fifteen minutes before the service was about to begin at Loaves and Fishes’ Friendship Park, he checked the Sacramento County Coroner’s website to find familiar but tragic news: yet another homeless man had died. He was only 23.

“It’s startling,” Smith said. “Just startling.”

In 2018, 132 homeless men and women died in Sacramento County – the highest number of homeless deaths on record, according to an annual report by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. The new data shows that homeless deaths are continuing to rise; the number of deaths surged from 71 in 2016 to 124 in 2017.

The spike in homeless deaths coincides with a sharp increase in Sacramento’s homeless population. A bi-annual survey released last month revealed the county’s homeless population had gone up 19 percent over the past two years and now stands at an estimated 5,570, the highest number on record.

Less than a quarter of the homeless died from natural causes. The most common cause of death in 2018 was blunt force injury, claiming 21 lives. That included homicides, suicides and accidents – people like 36-year-old Sarah Valencia, whose November death was determined to be an accident.

The second most common cause was cardiovascular-related issues, which killed 19 people, including 31-year-old Richard Moe, who died from chronic systolic congestive heart failure, according to coroner records. The third most common cause was methamphetamine use, which killed 18, including 40-year-old Denise Navarro.

Meth-related deaths are on the rise. In 2018, 26 percent of homeless deaths involved methamphetamine, up from 22 percent in 2017 and 11 percent in 2016, according to the report.

Smith started holding memorials at Loaves and Fishes on Fridays in 2017. He noticed an uptick in 2018.

“Last year was horrible,” he said. “It was happening so fast. Sometimes we were having two memorials a week.”

Shannon Stevens, who runs the Maryhouse women’s shelter at Loaves and Fishes, also hosts memorials. And their number spiked last year as well. Stevens starts each morning by checking the coroner’s website, and bracing herself.

“Women are literally dying outside and alone as they wait for shelter,” Stevens said. “Memorial services are about remembering that these women were living, breathing people, worthy of moments of pause.”

Some services are harder than others for the organizers.

The first service Smith hosted this year was for Teri Anderson, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter, he said.

The pair used to be homeless together in Rancho Cordova. Then Smith got sober at Volunteers of America’s adult rehabilitation center, set to close this fall, he said. Smith found permanent housing in 2011, while Anderson was still living on the streets.

“Terry’s (memorial) was tough,” Smith said. “If you would have told me six or seven years ago when I was running around the streets with her that I’d be, you know, putting on a memorial for her, yeah....”

His voice trailed off.

“I don’t even know what to say,” he said.

Friday’s service was also extra tough for Smith. He had bonded with Jeffrey Canning, a quiet but cheerful Army veteran who used a wheelchair and suffered from PTSD and diabetes. Canning died July 8. The 52-year-old’s cause of death has not been determined.

Canning first came to Loaves and Fishes in the winter of 2017, cold and looking for a jacket, Smith said. He got one, and also found a friend in Smith. It sometimes took Canning two days to travel in his wheelchair from the riverfront where he camped to the Loaves campus north of downtown. When he arrived, he always greeted Smith the same way.

“He would always come to the service counter and he would say, ‘Hey Joe, I just wanted to let you know I’m still alive,’” Smith told about a dozen people gathered for the memorial on tidy green benches planted under umbrellas in the middle of Friendship Park. Next to them stood a curved granite wall engraved with the names of 721 men and women who have perished on Sacramento streets since 1990.

Smith went on to describe his feeling the day he checked the coroner’s website to find Canning’s name. He closed his eyes and could see his friend’s smile and could hear him say, “I’m still alive, Joe.”

“None of these are easy,” Canning told the crowd. “This one kicked me pretty hard in the gut, guys.”

The coalition hopes the report will cause city and county officials to enact several policy changes. The requests include:

The city should open a year-round shelter in each City Council district. Mayor Darrell Steinberg in December asked all eight of his council colleagues to find sites for 100-bed “rehousing” shelters. So far, four members have announced sites or plans to open 100 new shelter beds in their districts.

The city should open “safe parking zones” where people can park their cars to sleep. The lots would include showers, toilets, meals and services.

The county should restore funding for Volunteers of America’s Substance Abuse Outreach and Treatment Program.

Funding should be expanded for a “medical respite” center, where people can go to recover after they are discharged from hospitals.

The county coroner’s office should create a “homeless deaths review committee,” similar to San Francisco’s, to monitor and make recommendations to improve services for homeless people.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.