On the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 24, dozens of people filtered through Santa Rosa’s Olive Park to honor the lives of people who have died on the streets of Sonoma County over the past eight years.
The event, titled “A Walk to Remember for Those Gone But Not Forgotten,” was organized by members of Sonoma Acts of Kindness, the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, Mask Sonoma, Homeless Action!, the North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP), and Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment (H-PEACE) with input from people living on the streets throughout the process.
Event organizers asked shelterless people how they would like to honor their friends and loved ones who had died on the streets, often without formal space to mourn or grieve, said Heather Jackson, one of the event’s organizers.
“We wanted to do something to offer the unsheltered an opportunity to mourn the passage of their friends and loved ones,” Jackson said. One local houseless woman, Little Lisa, was integral in organizing the event, according to Jackson.
At one end of the park, the organizers arranged dozens of images of the deceased, many of which were taken or shared by people still living on the streets. Nearby, volunteers distributed sack lunches so that attendees would not have to seek food elsewhere.
Tyrell Brown, a 34-year-old Sonoma County native who has been living on the streets off and on for the past four and a half years, knew two of the deceased people. Brown said he was not involved in organizing the event, but was glad to take part.
“They may not be with us today, but they are looking down on us,” Brown said. “They would want us to make the best of it while we’re here.”
Event organizers distributed a list of 78 people who have died on the streets beginning with Michela Ann Wooldridge, a 24-year-old woman who was stabbed to death by a stranger on Halloween night in 2012.
Organizers were quick to admit that the count, which was gathered by word of mouth, press reports, Internet research, among other methods, is almost certainly incomplete.
Unsurprisingly, living on the streets is hard on the body for a variety of reasons. Increased exposure to the elements and a lack of medical care, combined with drug use and murder, all make an earlier death more likely.
For instance, the average age of death for homeless people in Los Angeles County was 48 for women and 51 for men, compared to 83 and 79 respectively for sheltered people, according to a recent study by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
In 2018, 918 homeless people died on the streets of Los Angeles County, which had an estimated houseless population of 53,000 that year.
Earlier this month, the Bohemian’s sister publication San Jose Inside reported that 163 homeless people died in Santa Clara County last year, according to data from the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office. The county had an estimated 9,706 homeless residents in 2019.
While Sonoma County is a more rural county with a smaller overall population, it still has a significant number of people living without shelter. For the past five years, the estimated number of homeless individuals in the county has hovered just below 3,000.
Since late May, after a pause in the early months of the pandemic, Santa Rosa police have continued to relocate encampments throughout the city citing health and fire risks at a series of large camps, first below Highway 101 near Railroad Square and, most recently, in Cancer Survivors Plaza on Fourth Street.
An ongoing injunction, a legal agreement between the local homeless residents and Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, restricts the ways in which local governments are allowed to move encampments by requiring them, in most cases, to provide homeless people with housing alternatives before forcing them to move.
But, in a Thursday, Oct. 22, court filing, lawyers representing local homeless people in the lawsuit argued that Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have violated the injunction six times since late May by repeatedly moving large-scale encampments without meeting the injunction’s requirements.
“The City has forced unhoused people to leave public property without first providing adequate shelter, often ignoring reasonable accommodation requests made by people with disabilities,” the attorneys allege in the filing. The case is scheduled to return to court on Nov. 17.