The Homeless can Not Rest in Peace...

root - Posted on 21 April 2003

People march through the streets to honor the homeless who have died and protest the end of Department of Public Health’s Homeless Death Count

by Valerie Schwartz/PoorNewsNetwork Community Journalist and Poverty Scholar

For the Poor People of the World

There is no respect

Living or Dead

Ode to the throes of the Poor,

lost and forgotten and not mourned

The homeless can not rest in peace….

……excerpt from "Barely in yo grave" by A. Faye Hicks, Po’ Poets Project

I have lost more than a few friends to homeless deaths, as a matter of fact it is almost too depressing to think for about very long because the body count is high. . I have known homeless people, friends and acquaintances who have died from things as varied as exposure/ hypothermia, heart attacks, seizures, blood poisoning, staff infections, Hep C, AIDS, alcohol poisoning, overdose, suicide, renal failure, diabetes, flesh eating disease, abscesses, pneumonia, and violence. I myself had quite a few close encounters with the Angel of Death while living on the streets of San Francisco. To say that I cheated death would be an outright lie. I was fortunately in the right/wrong place enough times to rob the death angel, boldly and forthright from taking myself and other people on the streets.. Most of these deaths are and would have been preventable. In 2000,the Department of Public Heath stopped counting homeless deaths and the study of homeless deaths. The DPH claimed that due to a shortage of funding, employees, staff, and a change of priority the study would end.

It's dreary gray Monday afternoon typical of January in San Francisco. I am standing at the cable car turn around at Powell and Market Streets as the people walk by to look and the diverse array of street vendors and their wares. As a woman stares out the second floor window of the GAP, people are getting ready to start the "Homeless Death Funeral Procession and Protest." We are dressed in black, some have their faces painted in the stark black and white death mask as this is a protest of a serious erasure of people by Dr. Mitch Katz of the DPH. Folks from Coalition on Homelessness, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, POOR Magazine and many more economic justice organizers are gathered here to demand that the Department of Public Health reinstate the annual homeless death study and to acknowledge the lives of the homeless we have lost here in the city. Clipboards are being passed through the crowd to gather signatures to endorse the reinstatement of the homeless death count as well as food for those who are hungry.

"Every year in San Francisco there are at least one hundred homeless deaths", said Machiko Saito one of the organizers of the event. According to statistics since 1987 more than 1,600 have died homeless here in San Francisco. The Tenderloin Times first started the tracking of homeless deaths in 1987 and even though they have folded, they started a monumentally important task: the death count of our city's homeless. The Department of Public Health started keeping track of the deaths in 1997-1999. Information from the Medical Examiners Office was used to create a database on sites of deaths, preventable deaths and information on deaths caused from intentional and non- intentional injuries. The tally was abandoned for 2000 due to lack of funding and the need in September 2001, for a study on "bio-terrorism" superceding the homeless death study.

There had been a "Community Advisory Board" that used and implemented this data for health outreach workers to hamper deaths and educate the public. It also served to create a database of what information was pertinent to creating solutions within the health and social systems of San Francisco.

There is a black plywood coffin and some flowers, from the side of them steps Madigan, a mental-health advocate, and a self described, "punk rock cellist." Madigan told the people how being present the march and "protesting and organizing is good for your mental health."

" We ain't gonna take this shit cuz people are dying!" said Garth Ferguson, a long time advocate for the homeless. He told us of how he "stumbled across a dead man" in 1987 and that was the beginning of the homeless death count that the Tenderloin Times carried the news of, the news that the corporate media would not cover.

Through the start of this homeless death count, the literal stumbling of Garth Ferguson, several things of major import happened. 1. The Mac Millan Drop-In Center opened thus facilitating a place for homeless folk that had been turned away from the shelters for being intoxicated which left them susceptible to hypothermia to get in from out doors. 2. A death prevention: an outreach team that combines outreach mental health, substance abuse and medical services to those at risk. 3. The "Substance Grievance Procedure" to help ensure that addicts who would be put out of treatment, receive other treatment rather than be put out in the streets with nowhere to go making relapse inevitable, especially after tolerance levels being lower from being in treatment.

"In the last six years I've lost fifteen people", said Delphine Brody. A member of the Substance Mental Health Workers Coalition, Delphine says, "People are dying due to a lack of access" and that when Prop N goes into effect "Chances are people won't be able to get into hotels on fifty-nine dollars a month. Ms Brody talked of how it was Dr. Mitch Katz of DPH that had made the decision to end the count and study of homeless deaths, "He thinks it is more important to fight bio-terrorism.

I didn't even want to try and think, it made me so very sad and angry to even try to count all those who have passed, that I have known, who have passed here in San Francisco homeless. Some weren't counted as homeless even though they most assuredly were. Some slept in their vehicles, other peoples rooms, apartments, basements, or couch surfed and those that sidewalk surfed the gritty pissy pavement of the city finding refuge in the slivers of cardboard, where they could. They were not legal tenants anywhere, but still not listed as homeless. Some had people give them addresses upon their death for reasons of burial, mortuary service, and in the end it all comes down to money doesn't it? They don't even have a paupers graveyard anymore, I'm not sure what they do with the ashes of the homeless. I know the morgue wanted six-hundred dollars to have my friend Tiffany's ashes sent to her mother in Oregon. I believe it is imperative that we have the homeless death study to help prevent these deaths that are so unnecessary and re-implement the education of harm reduction and the valuable information that can be obtained through this study and to acknowledge the people of our city in death and to pay homage to them.

Bianca Henry, an advocate of housing for the poor and homeless then stepped up to the microphone and said, "Every year we lose family to the street. Bianca brought to us the knowledge that the largest growing segment of homeless across our nation are families and that the conditions should be changed. Says Bianca, "Families are being left out, for the City to leave children on the street is not okay... It is not a crime to be poor."

"Bay City Love", an accapella trio of three African-American men then gave a beautiful tribute to those who have passed on our streets homeless. They started singing 'Down by the Riverside" in a three part harmony and then helped Madigan and Machiko in the chants and songs for the march.

The march/procession started to move up the sidewalk chanting and singing as we, in a number of what I would estimate at seventy people, went up Market to Seventh Street where we made the first of several stops to honor those who have passed away. On Seventh between Mission and Market we stopped and paid tribute to Teresa Guerra. Yolanda Catzalco of POWER spoke about Teresa, her friend who died in a shelter where no one called the paramedics for help until ten hours had passed and nothing could be done. "Teresa was one of the forefront leaders against Prop N...she took on the big one, she took on Gavin Newsom, ", said Yolanda. Teresa had been an advocate for the poor and homeless. She worked with POWER and fought for jobs and housing for people.

We then went to United Nations Plaza to evoke the memory of a personal friend of mine Cesar Cruz a very good, kind man. I had known Cesar since about oh 1993 or 94 when he first came to the Tenderloin he used to work at the Western Hotel and eventually became homeless and lived in Civic Center with his dog, "Bear". L.S. Wilson spoke first at the statue and the end of the Plaza at Hyde St., "Cesar was as much a fixture of this city as this statue...he was a leader of the U. N. Plaza homeless."

Another man spoke, an elder. He talked about how "Cesar was loved by a lot of the people here" and how Cesar had been instrumental in organizing the homeless, Cesar's generosity and how Cesar, a Veteran, had been a diplomat as a homeless person. The gentleman also said, " In seven years I've seen forty-nine people that I know pass" and followed with a message to the Mayor.. " F' you, Mayor Brown we are still here and more determined!"

From the Plaza we walked up to Mc Allister and Larkin to honor yet another homeless death, that of Trent Hayward. Trent was a talented writer, advocate, and a volunteer for the Coalition on Homelessness, Street Spirit and POOR Magazine. Allison Lum quoted a passage written by Trent to the DPH in regard to the fence that was put up on the corner of Larkin and Mc Allister, where Trent lived, houselessly, in which Trent said the DPH might as well put up signs that said, "Please refrain from dying on our property." The fence was put up because people had been camping out there and apparently dying on DPH property.

On the way towards City Hall I ran into an old friend that I haven't seen for about a year and a half, April. April informed me that while she was in treatment/program her lover, our friend, Dean Lockart died in front of the Post Office on Golden Gate and Hyde Streets last February 2002. I had known Dean since 1984, he was a gentle and good person. It is weird how things happen. I was just thinking about Dean and April not more than a week ago and wondering if they were still surviving out there and today I have my question answered. I couldn't help but get mad at myself for wondering about them as if perhaps if I hadn't thought about them maybe I wouldn't have had to know the truth and maybe Dean would still be alive. I am glad we did not go to Turk and Hyde for I would have broke down thinking about the loss of Mama, my friend and a friend to many, a vehicularily housed elder who died of a heart attack in her van, homeless. I am growing tired of the truth and that is: The city's poor homeless are in dire need of service and the truth is that I am sick and tired of seeing people die out there when it isn't necessary, not ordained, nor part of any divine plan.

Our final stop was at 101 Grove St. at the DPH's Public Health and Safety building. Outside on the steps and the entrances to the building the SFPD was present and informed people that they could not take in any signs placards or posterboards. I expected a search but they allowed us in and were actually pretty reserved. Mary Kate from Caduesus Center spoke before we went into the public meeting of the Health Commission. "I"m really sad that we are all here...what it speaks to is that here is a group of people here who care", "These lives do not have value, this is the message we are receiving", said Mary kate. She then added that if it was smallpox it wouldn't have happened, that it would have been addressed and taken care of. Before we walked into the doors she said, "Every life has value." Mary Kate then read the list of demands on the steps that the organizers, supporters, and the homeless were standing.

We are demanding that Department of Public Health work to:

1. Prevent Homeless Deaths

2. Count and Study homeless deaths within the Health Department

3. Re-institute homeless people's Over-site Committee to make recommendations for change

4. Adhere to existing San Francisco Definition of Homelessness in the study.

We then entered the building and went up the steps to the third floor where the Health Commission was meeting, we entered, perhaps forty people into the hearing room while others stood in the hall. Chanting and singing started, the gavel banged and banged, the chair said we would not be acknowledged. Wrong, it was he who was not acknowledged: for the tribute to our friends, loved ones, and citizens was louder than the gavel.

L.S. Wilson of the Coalition on Homelessness then approached the Chairman and the Health Commission. He stood at the dais and into the microphone he spoke clearly and loudly in behalf of those who have passed, those presently homeless, and served the following Summons Malpractice Lawsuit. The room quieted as L.S. read the summons to the defendant Dr. Mitch Katz. When he finished the chanting and singing resumed until everyone exited the room and went outside.

Although it was a serious and somewhat somber afternoon and at times sadly reflective: I had a sense of unity to come and that the tear in the fabric of humanity is being repaired slowly, methodically, and with love and with a voice that will not allow itself to be stifled or censored any longer. "We are still here and more determined."


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