A memorial service for 35 people who died in Marin while living on the street this year ended with the doleful tolling of the bells on Wednesday.
For more than two decades, the solemn ceremony has been held to mark the deaths of the homeless or recently housed. The tradition continued Wednesday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ross and the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael with a reading of the names of those who died from 2017 to 2020.
This year’s service took on a different form as the pandemic forced the Street Chaplaincy, which serves Marin’s homeless community, to hold a remembrance online.
“We know this has been a year of such grief and immeasurable loss,” said the Rev. Marty Tracy, who began serving as the county’s street chaplain in April, as the pandemic took hold.
Despite the fact that Marin County has put increased efforts into housing the chronically homeless in recent years, the number of deaths increased steadily over that five-year period. There were five deaths in 2017, 12 in 2018, 19 in 2019 and 35 in 2020.
Other Bay Area counties also saw a big jump in the number of homeless deaths during the first nine months of this year compared to 2019. The increases ranged from 30% in Contra Costa County to 123% in San Francisco.
Surprisingly, however, just four of the 560 deaths reported in five Bay Area counties this year were confirmed coronavirus cases.
Public health experts say other forces are at work. Homeless populations are aging and becoming sicker, drug overdose deaths are soaring and the pandemic has made it more difficult for the homeless to access health care and other services.
Lynn Murphy, a mental health liaison for the San Rafael Police Department who read the names of those who died in 2017, said none of the homeless who died this year succumbed to the coronavirus.
However, Murphy said some of the deaths are considered to be “COVID-adjacent.” For example, she said feelings of isolation caused by sheltering in place may have led to more drug and alcohol deaths. She also said many support services for the homeless are available only on a limited basis or not at all due to the pandemic.
Health officials in San Francisco and Alameda counties point to addiction and overdoses as major causes of the increase in homeless deaths there.
As for Marin’s deaths in 2020, Tracy said, “I think fentanyl is contributing.” She herself supplied the Narcan needed to reverse an overdose recently.
Tracy said a third of the Marin’s 35 deaths this year occurred during November and December.
“That makes me a little nervous about what might be coming,” she said. “The unhoused folks are just tired, and they’re scared.”
“When we are tired and scared and don’t have the resources at hand, it’s hard to stave off crises,” Tracy said. “That can include a drug relapse crisis or a mental health crisis that may result in someone taking their own life.”
Murphy said some of those who died in Marin this year did so after being housed recently. She said many were in poor health due to years of previous homelessness.
Tracy said some became more isolated after being housed and that might also have played a role.
Murphy said one of those who died in November was a 56-year-old woman she got to know well over several years. The woman, who suffered from mental illness, was found dead in a campsite beneath a Highway 101 overpass.
Murphy said the woman grew up in Mill Valley, attended Tamalpais High School and was recruited by Stanford University to participate on its swim team.
“People often have this misperception that people are homeless by their own choice or that they came here from out of the area,” Murphy said. “In fact, 73% of people who are homeless in Marin are from Marin.”
Before becoming street chaplain, Tracy earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University Divinity School and served two tours in Afghanistan as a member of the Air Force Reserve.
Tracy said she is struck by how many people walk by the homeless “looking right through them, without acknowledging them as people who have stories and struggles.”
“We’re all just really lucky,” Tracy said, “It’s not that hard to become unsheltered, and once you are unsheltered it’s really hard to get out of that. Everyone is a child of God.”
In addition to funding Tracy’s position, the Street Chaplaincy normally hosts a weekly “wellness gathering,” a shared meal that attempts to build community within Marin’s homeless population and to bridge the gap between the homeless and the housed in Marin.
Prior to the pandemic, a number of local congregations helped supply food for the meal.
“Now we’re back paying for the meals ourselves,” said Nick Morris, the organization’s executive director. For the time being, the meals are being prepared to-go.
The Street Chaplaincy held a holiday dinner outside at First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael on Tuesday with strict enforcement of masking and distancing rules. The group is trying to raise money to maintain its program and expand the street chaplain’s hours beyond 10 hours a week and hopes to take advantage of a $10,000 matching donation.
More information is at streetchaplaincy.org.