Merced County Times Newspaper
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Vigil held for homeless who perished on streets

A volunteer hangs ornaments on a tree in honor of the 20 homeless people who died in Merced County this year.
A volunteer hangs ornaments on a tree in honor of the 20 homeless people who died in Merced County this year.

Nobody knows how many homeless people die in America each year. While local governments can estimate the number of homeless people in a given area by taking an annual census, not every city and county records how many homeless people die while living on the streets.

In Merced County, however, we do know that number. It’s 20 people.

Twenty individuals, the youngest a 20-year-old girl and the oldest an 81-year-old man, died in Merced County in 2022.

Their names were memorialized in a vigil last Wednesday, the same day of the winter solstice, which is the longest night on the calendar. Dozens of concerned citizens attended the event, which took place at McNamara Park in Merced at the foot of a sapling planted in honor of a local hero who died in 2021 after struggling with homelessness.

“We try to bring light to people who feel in darkness, but also we want to make a little noise and let the other folks know we’re here and that people need help,” said Lee Greenawalt, president of the Central Valley Journey for Justice, which organized the event.

The memorial is held each year on the solstice as winter is the most dangerous time to be homeless, even in a fair weather state like California. While everyone else is bundled up and cozy inside, the homeless are at the mercy of nature. Winter storms wipe out encampments, destroying possessions and causing even more trauma, and the frigid temperatures are often lethal.

The cold is what killed Jeff Martinez, the last person on the list and the most recent homeless person to die in the county this year. He was found behind Hao’s Kitchen on Highway 140 in the final days of November. He was well-known among the homeless people in the area, who looked out for him due to him being disabled.

Because records of homeless deaths go largely unreported – Journey for Justice had to request the information from the coroner – the exact number of people who die on the streets is unknown. About two percent of counties in America record the housing status of the dead, and data from those counties shows that around 5,800 homeless people die in a given year. Organizations have attempted to estimate the death toll of homelessness nationally by applying that data to the rest of the country, and the best guess is that anywhere from 17,500 to 46,500 homeless people die in America each year, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Gloria Sandoval, a prominent voice for the homeless and the wife of Dr. Salvador Sandoval, the county’s public health officer, called attention to the ongoing problem of housing costs.

“Affordable housing is not being replaced, so someone is going to be left out,” she said, comparing the situation to musical chairs. “A lot of people think law enforcement is going to solve this problem. We need homes. We need houses.”

Sandoval read off the names of the dead while people took turns placing ornaments on a tree planted in memory of Joseph Edwards, a homeless man that saved four students from a crash in Bear Creek in 2010 with the help of his girlfriend Bernice Gonzalez. Edwards died in 2021, and was referred to locally as the “Homeless Hero” for his actions.

Here are the names and ages of the 20 homeless people who died in Merced County this year: Vernon Stone, 37; Frank Huerta, age unknown; Kenneth Yaple, 81; Jesse Peterson, 33; Ruben Zapien, 36; Irma Dean, age unknown; Erek Badillo, 30; Olegaro Gonzales, 58; Christopher Banderas, 28; Alice Vasquez, age unknown; Earl Henderson, 44; John Castillo, age unknown; Michael Rogers, 64; Charissa Williams, 20; Shawn McNulty, 58; Guy Killian, 54; Richard Dunlap, 65; Andrea Viramontes, 30; James Galvan, 23; Jeff Martinez, 55.

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