California Forum

A homeless man dies in Sacramento, and a community asks: What more could we have done?

Jose Jesus Vivanco’s little dog, Chato, was adopted by one of the author’s neighbors after Vivanco, a homeless denizen of Tahoe Park, died Oct. 23.
Jose Jesus Vivanco’s little dog, Chato, was adopted by one of the author’s neighbors after Vivanco, a homeless denizen of Tahoe Park, died Oct. 23.

Dear Jose,

I get it now. Yesterday I was shocked and frustrated and worried about your little dog, Chato. Today, when I got home, my friend Karl was mowing my lawn. He’d heard about the death of my friend and gardener, Jose, or Rambo, or Grandpa, who was a homeless man in the Tahoe Park neighborhood. A stylish man regularly seen pushing a lawn mower, with an assemblage of rusty tools and plastic bags attached, humming along to your radio, with your little buddy tucked under your arm.

I understand now that you’re gone, dear Jose, and that you died a death that could have been prevented. If you had lived in a decent country.

Jose Jesus Vivanco. Over the four years I’ve known you, I’ve only pieced together a little of your past. Your family is all in Mexico, and you’re somewhat estranged. You had had some trouble with some hard substances, but swear that you’re clean now. (I believe you.) Your current companion, Chato, is not your first Chihuahua – but he sure is your baby.

Mostly we talked about now – issues in the park, people stealing your stuff, the homeless woman you were worried about, all your lesbian girlfriends in the neighborhood. About health issues, yours and Chato’s, about finding safe places to stay, about renewing your green card.

When I last saw you a month ago, you were extremely bloated and uncomfortable. You apologized for not getting to my yard – no apology necessary! You mentioned something about a hit and run, then said that the bloating was what happened to your mother before she died.

Confused, I asked if I could take you to the hospital and you said no, that you just needed some water pills. I should have insisted. I am so sorry.

I didn’t see you after I got you the pills. Another neighbor posted on our Nextdoor site a couple of weeks later, wondering if anyone had seen you. Moments after the post, you showed up at her door. She was going to get you to see a doctor. She made an appointment and you knew about it. But you didn’t show.

Last spring yet another neighbor helped you renew your green card. There were still a few I’s to dot, but everything was in order.

Then last November a man who wants to round up all “the bad hombres” was elected president. On your transistor radio you heard enough to know a green card probably didn’t cut it anymore. You confessed to me your fears of deportation when I last saw you healthy, feeling defeated after all your hard work to get and stay on the right side of the law and to renew your papers.

Even if you could have been assured you wouldn’t have been deported, I know the fear of not being able to pay for treatment, and the desire not to burden any of “your ladies”, no doubt weighed heavily in on your decision not to make that appointment.

And what of the hit and run driver? You were hit – multiple sources confirmed. Did fear of deportation also cause you to dissuade your confidantes from calling the police?

I’ve been outraged for the past 12 months. It’s just my natural state now. Numb or outraged. But the sadness for you is new. While our relationship was superficial, you were special to me and to so many in the neighborhood. And your life was special. It was yours.

Your days of singing and doing your little dances in the sun, sweating from hard work proudly done, being devotedly followed by your little shadow, Chato, laughing with me or one of your other “princesses” are over. That is so incredibly sad. Your 60th birthday is coming up and I was preparing the hunt for a better strawberry cake than last year. No more cake.

I heard you were found dead on the porch of a neighbor who was having you bunk down there for a while. The coroner’s report is confusing, showing that no release authorization has been given to your daughter. I am so relieved that Chato has found a loving home with yet another neighbor, but it seems that the frightening uncertainty you knew in life is following you.

I’m sorry that the United States failed you. That when you came here for the American Dream, you got dealt a worse hand than you probably would have had back home.

And I’m sorry I failed you. You were a good, kind man, a funny charmer with old-fashioned ideas. A piece of work. But you were a friend, and I always felt safer knowing you were around. I’m shocked by my selfishness, knowing how unsafe you were. I could have done more for you.

But I’m daily disheartened by how little it seems can be done here anymore. I realize this is no excuse, but a reminder to myself that doing the right thing is truly up to individual people on the small scale these days. Our friends, our neighbors, the family we have and the family we make: These are the people we have to be able to count on when our government fails us so greatly.

I hope you are in your idea of heaven. Maybe what you thought America was going to be for you. Rest in peace, dear Jose. If there is a life beyond this world, I hope you are there, free of fear.

Kelly O’Neill is a middle school art teacher who lives in Tahoe Park. She can be reached at

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