The Homeless

110 homeless people have died in Sacramento County this year. Community gathers to hear their names

Emily Judd Bevington died at Methodist Hospital of Sacramento this fall, leaving behind her husband, David, who cared for her at the riverside campsite where they lived.

Andrea Williams, known for her giant smile, was found dead along the American River in Folsom in November.

No one knows where John Sobjowiak, known by seemingly everyone in Friendship Park at Loaves and Fishes, died this fall.

The three were among the 110 homeless people who died in Sacramento County this year. More than 150 people attended a memorial service Friday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in midtown Sacramento to remember them, and hear their names read aloud.

The group gathered for the fifth year in a row on the winter solstice, longest night of the year, for the interfaith service, organized by Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

Fourteen of the 110 people who died this year were women who had been guests at Maryhouse Hospitality Center for Homeless Women, a downtown shelter. It is the most guests who died in any given year since director Shannon Stevens began working at the center almost five years ago, she said.

“It’s become more routine, which is unfortunate,” Stevens said. “There’s still an extreme lack of shelter for people.”

Judd Bevington, one of the Maryhouse guests who died this year at age 54, would frequently surprise staff by dying her hair new bright colors like pink or blue. She struggled with alcoholism in her past, but things were looking up, Stevens said. She had recently married in June to a kind man who was her singing partner at local open mic nights, Stevens said.

“They were two peas in a pod,” Stevens said.

Williams, another Maryhouse guest who died this year at age 44, would frequently greet Stevens with a hug. Although she was suffering from the trauma of domestic violence, as well as ongoing drug and alcohol abuse issues, Williams always asked how Stevens was doing when she came by for a meal, to pick up her mail or charge her phone, she said.

“I remember her very well for her smile,” said Stevens, who saw Williams the day before she died. “She had a great big smile that took over her whole face.”

Something about Sobjowiak, who also died this year, stood out to Gabrielle Salazar, who works with many homeless people at nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward.

“He had the eyes of friendship, where you’re just like, ‘that’s someone I want to get to know,’” she said of the 57-year-old man found dead outside this fall.

When he walked through Friendship Park, nearly everyone greeted him, Salazar recalled.

The cause of death for the three is unknown but more than a third of the 110 died violent deaths, such as stabbings, blunt force, and hangings, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. The average age of the 110 was 49, illustrating how homelessness typically takes about a third off a person’s life, Erlenbusch said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he attended the service with both hope and despair in his heart.

“We refuse to declare anything close to victory until more people in Sacramento are housed,” Steinberg said.

The Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness during the ceremony launched a “Yes in My Backyard” campaign, looking for more than 50 residents of each council district to sign up to say they support shelters in their neighborhoods.

The city’s only triage shelter on Railroad Drive in North Sacramento opened a year ago, and more than 175 people who have stayed there throughout the year are no longer homeless, according to city data. The shelter has a capacity of 100 beds, though, and more shelters are needed, homeless advocates say. Steinberg recently asked council members to find sites in each of their districts to house up to 100 people.

“Despite having a triage shelter open year round, the large number of people still passed away, which is all the more reason to push for the mayor’s proposal to have each council district house 100 people,” Erlenbusch said. “That would add 800 beds. It still leaves about 1,000 people outside, but it’s a good start.”

Stevens suggested the city open a women-only shelter because women who have suffered from domestic violence often do not feel comfortable sleeping near men.

“For women experiencing homelessness who have lived through so much trauma, having a space entirely theirs and not shared with men at all, I think, is really important,” Stevens said.

The coalition will not have the full finalized list of homeless people who died in 2018 until the summer, Erlenbusch said.

Last year, 124 died — a sharp increase from 71 in 2016.