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Santa Clara County Coroner: Four San Jose Homeless Die from Exposure

| December 6, 2013
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By Dan Brekke and Alex Emslie

Homeless at San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, April 2013. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Homeless at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church, April 2013. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

The Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office says four people died overnight of exposure between Thursday night and Friday morning during continuing cold weather. By way of Bay City News, the coroner says that autopsies determined that the four people, who were not identified, died of hypothermia.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that three of the deaths were in homeless encampments and one in a garage, all apparently in San Jose.

Temperatures have fallen to or below freezing in most of the Bay Area each of the last three mornings. Although exposure has been long recognized as one of the greatest risks to the homeless, this is the first report of deaths this week.

Cities and social services agencies throughout the Bay Area have opened extra shelter space this week, but many people have remained outdoors during this week’s stretch of cold weather. The Mercury News talked to the director of one of those agencies after last night’s deaths were reported:

“I’m just angry,” said Jenny Niklaus, the CEO of EHC LifeBuilders, a provider of homeless services. “We have to solve this problem. Even with our cold-weather shelters open, there are still people out there. This is what happens when we allow homelessness to happen. People die.”

The Merc also offers this context for the homeless population in the South Bay:

San Jose/Santa Clara County has the fifth-largest homeless population in the country behind only New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego, according to a recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.

Of the 7,631 homeless, who were counted in January as part of a nationwide census, 74 percent were listed as “unsheltered” — meaning they have no place suitable for human habitation to stay. It has been estimated that on any given night, there are 5,000 people outside in the county.

In Oakland last night, emergency shelters filled up. Susan Shelton, Oakland’s manager of community housing services, said the city is prepared to make more emergency shelter available if the need arises.

Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley says it has treated two people for hypothermia since the cold snap began. Oakland’s Highland Hospital says it admitted one person for hypothermia who was still being treated Friday.

San Francisco’s Human Services Agency has initiated its “cold snap protocol,” which instructs city shelters to let people into any vacant beds after 8 p.m. when the temperature is below 40 degrees.

“It’s challenging,” said Bevan Dufty, director of Housing Opportunity Partnership and Engagement for Mayor Ed Lee. “San Francisco has 3,400 people who are homeless on the streets of our city. I’m not offering to you that every person is going to be served by this protocol, but we certainly want to set a standard where the public knows and people who are homeless and on our streets know that we want to work with them to make sure that they’re safe in this cold weather.”

San Francisco has 1,150 emergency shelter beds, which includes some extra winter shelter space that isn’t available year-round. Dufty said 51 beds were vacant last night, but if the shelters fill up, another space is prepared to open and add more beds.

Police and homeless outreach workers in San Francisco have also been instructed to look out for the signs of hypothermia, including disorientation, uncontrollable shaking, and extremities turning blue. Dufty says San Francisco police will give homeless people rides to shelters.

A San Francisco General Hospital spokeswoman said there has not been an increase is treatment for hypothermia, and no one had been “found down,” or unconscious, due to exposure during the cold snap.

Most officials recommend calling 911 if someone is found disoriented or unconscious in the cold. San Francisco Shelter Client Advocate Nicholas Kimura has some additional advice for people who may come across someone who isn’t hypothermic, but just looks cold.

“People can improve their own knowledge, become aware of what shelters there are, and direct them,” he said. “They could call the homeless outreach team, who will come pick them up if they have a bed available. And spare sweatshirts, spare blankets definitely help.”

The San Francisco homeless outreach team phone number is (415) 734-4233.

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