When I first began working at the Coalition on Homelessness, I learned to save a number on my phone that I never thought I’d have in my address book: (415) 641-3600 — the Medical Examiner’s office.
The phone would ring, a voice would answer on the other line, and I’d say a name and hold my breath, hoping they wouldn’t know who I was talking about, hoping that they weren’t dead.
I remember the first time I used it. Red-haired, scruffy, and wearing a green military jacket, Robert Scanlon usually sold the Street Sheet in front of Saigon Sandwich on Larkin Street, around the corner from my office, but it had been a week and I still hadn’t seen him. Someone at work said, You’ve gotta call the sheriff or the medical examiner, because when you’re homeless in this town, you’re either in jail or dead. I called the medical examiner first. Over a one-minute phone call, I found out he was dead and I cried at my desk.
More than 130 homeless people die on the streets of San Francisco every single year. The San Francisco Department of Public Health reported in February that this has likely stayed the same since the 1990s. If we are able to predict the number of homeless deaths that occur each year, why aren’t we doing anything to stop them from happening in the first place?
The deafening silence is a clear statement from The City: We will not care for homeless people in ways that will keep 130 people — people who are parents, friends, lovers and children of others — from dying on our streets.
These are deaths that are preventable. We know what we need: good physical and mental health care, substance use treatment programs and, above all else, permanent, affordable housing.
Vision Zero is The City’s commitment to ensure that traffic fatalities are eliminated by 2024. There is a pledge, a plan, and real political will to create change. For community accountability, the project even has a website with a dashboard to show how well The City is doing around its goal. The same vision, commitment and transparency needs to be made for deaths caused by homelessness. We, too, can — and must — guarantee that no one dies because they are without a home.
Today I found out that Little Eddie died, and last week it was Bernard. I wish that I could have known them in their entirety, not just the parts of their story that forced us to meet because they were trying to survive poverty. But I want to remember them both here, in the ways that I did know them, in the ways that we can all tell little stories to make things whole.
I hired Bernard Wilhite during last year’s Proposition C campaign. He was a middle-aged black man who came in early and stayed late, scanning thousands of phone banking sheets each day with quiet diligence. In the midst of the chaos of an election, Bernard was a force of positivity, with a big smile and thoughtful presence. And good ol’ Eddie “Little Eddie” Sanchez. At 5 feet, 2 inches, with a salt and pepper beard and a nasal voice, Little Eddie, who was in his late 50s when I first met him, never failed to surprise me. Sometimes he was so excited that he talked too fast for me to understand. He made colorful, eclectic art that depicted city life and politics about homelessness and he wrote poetry, too, both of which he carried around with him. I never saw him without a hat, dark brown curly hair tumbling underneath.
Rest in Power, Bernard.
Rest in Power, Little Eddie.
You are remembered, honored, celebrated and loved, by me, and by others. You died too young, too good, too deserving of more.
I remember Bernard and Little Eddie so they live on through others. I remember Bernard and Little Eddie because theirs are the precious lives that are lost when a city stops caring about its people. I remember Bernard and Little Eddie because the ways that their lives have touched ours require us to imagine new worlds and possibilities — in loving communities that refuse to let our people suffer and die on the streets, that love and hold each other, that build and grow together.
Until then, we will keep this city accountable to the death and dying of poor and homeless people. To the state-sanctioned violence that predicts homeless deaths but does not prevent them. To the churning of people in and out of systems of “care” that preserve poverty. This is why we are at every City Hall meeting. This is why we work so hard. This is why we protest: Because the people we deeply love and care about are dying.
In a city with the third largest billionaire population in the world, not a single person should be dying from living without a home. Now, we just have to commit to it.
Sam Lew is policy director for the Coalition on Homelessness.