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Deaths of homeless go uncounted in Bay Area

Issued: 2018-03-11

By Kimberly Veklerov



It had been weeks since Larry Joseph Botelho was spotted outside the box truck he lived in and kept parked near the Oakland airport. By the time someone asked police to check on him, the 63-year-old homeless man’s body was decomposing on a makeshift bed in the truck.

The Alameda County coroner’s office determined he died of natural causes. An investigator tracked down doctors, social workers and former employers, ran fingerprints, reviewed government records and an ancestry website, but found no relatives.

Botelho was cremated as an indigent — his ashes sent to Holy Cross Cemetery in Antioch, and his truck towed. Coroner’s case No. 01378 was closed.

Nothing in the official record shows he died homeless. His death certificate lists a home address: the spot on 98th Avenue where his truck was parked.

Guillem Posanz, 52, is a telecommunications technician who is currently unemployed and has been sleeping on the street for three years. This is exactly what he wrote on the sign that he held up at the entrance to the Mobile World Congress (MWC) for attendees to see as they walked in last week. Guillem's actions have resulted in several job interview offers. The initiative is part of a campaign launched by the NGO Homeless Entrepreneur to give visibility to the stories of people who sleep rough while searching for a job to get them out of this situation. Based in Barcelona, the charity organised a "Sleepout" on the doorstep of the MWC, which took place from February 25 to March 1 in the city. "Do you have a smartphone? Does it bother you when Do you see a human being sleeping on the street?" the organisers asked on their website . "Sleeping in the street for one night isn't going to kill you, but sleeping there every night can and will especially in winter and during cold fronts. A #HomelessEntrepreneur named Tomas who has successfully gotten off the street lost a close friend of his last week for this exact reason. Carol was only 45 years old," it read. When the sleepout participants woke up, they had already reserved the best positions to display their signs. Many of them had similar stories to Guillem's and wanted to catch the attention of MWC attendees who were going to spend their days discovering the most cutting-edge technology in the world of communication. One of the banners compared the prices of an entrance to MWC 2018, with the money needed to help a person get out of poverty. Andrew Funk is the founder of Homeless Entrepreneur, which has been working towards getting people off the street in Barcelona and reintroduce them into the world of work since 2003. He told Euronews that the charity's work is funded by mini-donations (crowdfunding). Phoneless and homeless — the digital divide Why did Homeless Entrepreneur choose MWC18 for its latest campaign? Because of the dramatic difference technology can make to a homeless person's life, said Funk. If a person is lacking both a roof over their head and a mobile phone, how can they be contacted after a job interview? How can they look for job offers online? They are stuck in a vicious cycle. Funk said that the charity's campaign has worked — for one, Guillem has several job interviews. Among the offers, Spanish audiovisual group Mediapro contacted him to ask for a CV. In addition, Homeless Entrepreneur has arranged meetings with representatives of Samsung and Adidas, both of which are interested in collaborating with the organisation on a mission that Guillem defines as helping people like him to "get their lives back".

Like many local governments, Alameda County does not collect data on how many homeless people die each year or their causes of death. Even if it did, neither the state nor federal government tracks such data — or requires that it be collected.

The Chronicle checked with coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, county public health departments, the California Department of Public Health, U.S. Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found that none had records on how many homeless people die — or mandates to collect the information.

The California Electronic Death Registration System, a database run by the state Department of Public Health, occasionally gets a death certificate where “homeless” or “encampment” is listed in place of a person’s residence, said spokeswoman Theresa Mier. But there aren’t any guidelines for doctors or medical examiners on when to use the designation.

Likewise, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department doesn’t have information or know of any national estimates on deaths of homeless individuals, said spokeswoman Carla Daniels.

Agencies that do attempt to keep track of how many homeless people die in their jurisdictions have no standardized guidelines or rules to follow. They rely on their own definition of who counts as homeless. And even if a person is clearly homeless, as in Botelho’s case, that information may never appear on the death record.

Once a homeless person dies — usually decades earlier than the U.S. life expectancy — investigators proceed with the same steps they do for any deceased person, said Lt. David Vandagriff, who runs the Alameda County coroner’s bureau.

First, they identify the dead. Next, they track down the family. Autopsies are conducted and reports are made. But a person’s housing status often does not make it into the official record.

If investigators can track down an address associated with the dead — where an estranged spouse lives or the place they would pick up mail — they often won’t be marked as homeless in the paperwork that documents how they died and who they were. If they find no address, they may write “homeless” or “transient” in that section of a death record.

“We are duty bound to show them respect and dignity,” Vandagriff said. “Quite often when we’re interacting with next of kin, we want to show them that this is not something that we’re judging your departed on. We’re not classifying them as anything other than a departed member of your family.”

At a homeless encampment beneath a highway overpass in West Oakland on a recent day, Danielle Golden ticked off the names of friends from the camp who died. She sat in a discarded recliner chair, not far from a tattered “homeless lives matter too” sign.

“Tamoo, Kilo, Chocolate, Spicey Mike, Ebo,” she said, just counting those she said died in the past year. Two were hit by cars, one was stabbed, another shot in the head. The latest perished in a fire. Their names were memorialized with sidewalk chalk until the rain came. It’s unclear whether they were marked as homeless in county death records.

In San Francisco, a woman named Alice, who for years lived on the sidewalk outside a Burger King, likely will not be included in the city’s 2018 count because she moved into a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Mission before she died last month, said Rachael Kagan, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Health.

Unlike Oakland, San Francisco compiles the number of homeless people who die each year. But officials caution that their count is probably a significant underestimation because homeless people who spend their last days in housing or a hospital may not make the tally.


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