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South Bay Homeless Advocates Paint Tombstones to Mark Cold Weather Deaths

SAN JOSE (KPIX) -- Advocates for the homeless say at least five people died in one night this week because of the cold weather and they say city and county leaders need to do more to prevent this from happening again.

"It's graphic, it's in your face, it's undeniable, it really strikes a chord with people," said Shaunn Cartwright with Unhoused Response Group. "Now when people are dead, you can't say anything, you can't say I'm sorry."

Memorial for Homeless Fatalities Due to Cold Weather
Shaunn Cartwright with Unhoused Response Group the paints names and ages of people who died while unhoused for a memorial they will display publicly on Dec. 21, 2021 in San Jose

Cartwright and other members of URG painted names and ages of unhoused people who died for a memorial they will display publicly on Dec. 21. That is the longest night of the year and organizers picked it as the moment they want to dedicate a tombstone for each person who died in 2021 while homeless. The event will take place outside the Santa Clara County offices in San Jose.

"The Medical Examiner-Coroner confirms that a number of recent homeless deaths are being investigated for possible cold exposure/hypothermia," the county said in a statement. "As the investigation is still ongoing, no other information is available at this time."

Cartwright says she was told at least five died in one night and she fears more have died this week around the county. She says more warming centers are needed in San Jose, especially in downtown. The centers alone are not enough for her, she wants their hours to be extended and more food to be offered.

"You can't get warm, you can't get dry and all you think about is, literally, 'I want to die.' It's the worst feeling you can have," R.J. Ramsey recalled. He was unhoused for 10 years and now works with URG to help others improve their situation. "I very easily could have been one of the people on the tombstones. I'm 55 and I've painted many a tombstone for people in their 50s and it hits home that I very easily could have been dead right now."

The city of San Jose said Friday it will open an overnight warming location -- or OWL -- in the evening and another one on Monday. Both will remain open until April 30. Hours of operation are from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day but a referral is needed to stay at an OWL.

"It's much harder for older adults to get around, to get food, to get services because a lot of them have mobility issues," Cartwright told KPIX on Friday.

The county also offers some library locations as shelters and has 1,972 beds available in shelters all year. Cartwright says that is not enough for the thousands she estimates are living on the streets. She also worries that many cannot get to shelters even if there is a bed available for them.

"Part of why we do this is so you can see these tombstones, you can't deny it, they're not just numbers. Each tombstone is a person and you can see their name, you can see their age," she said.

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