Berkeley police on the scene at the Bing Wong Wash Center on Parker Street (at Telegraph Avenue), where a black screen was put up to shield the body of William Stevens, who was apparently homeless. Photo: Elizabeth Gill

See update at bottom of the story.

On Wednesday morning, Berkeley police got a call that a man’s body was in front of a business on Parker Street at Telegraph Avenue. When officers arrived at 8:09 a.m., they found him — on a sleeping bag, his possessions spread around him.

The death did not look suspicious, according to Berkeley Police spokesman Officer Byron White.

The Alameda County coroner’s office has identified the man as William Stevens but has not yet released his age or city of residence. A Berkeleyside reader believes he was homeless. If that is true, his death marks the third apparent homeless death in Berkeley already this year. On Jan. 3, Michael Dowdy, 44, died near Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way. On Jan. 8, Gunnar Brekke, 57, died while he was sleeping at the Dorothy Day House, the shelter in the Veterans Building on Center Street. The coroner is still investigating the causes of their deaths.

In 2019, 12 homeless individuals died in Berkeley, according to the coroner’s office, which has been compiling statistics about transient deaths in the past few years. Four of those people were killed in accidents, six died of natural causes and the cause of one death remains undetermined. One was a woman.

Countywide, 137 people considered to be transient died in 2019, according to the report. The vast majority of deaths were in Oakland, where 74 people experiencing homelessness died in 2019. Of the total, two men were murdered, six committed suicide and the rest died in accidents or of natural causes.

The coroner’s office considers people to be transient if they don’t have a fixed address. The tally might not capture all the people who spend significant time on the streets and are regarded as homeless by others, but who might actually have a place to sleep inside, said Dan Dixon, coroner sergeant at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Some who die in hospitals might also be excluded if officials don’t note they don’t have a fixed address.

Dixon said the average number of transient deaths in Alameda County in any given year is about 100.

It’s not easy to determine if homelessness is a contributing factor to someone’s death, he said.

“Accidents, ODs, natural causes — it’s a mix of what people die of,” he added. “They have health conditions, they get older, there is no line that can be drawn.”

But living on the streets, exposed to extreme temperatures and without a place to rest or get clean, makes homelessness a risk factor for death, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“Homelessness creates new health problems and exacerbates existing ones,” the NHCHC reported in a 2019 report. “Living on the street or in crowded homeless shelters is extremely stressful.”

Living on the street or frequenting crowded homeless shelters can expose people to tuberculosis, respiratory illnesses, the flu and hepatitis, according to the NHCHC. People without homes have difficulty storing medicine for chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma — which can aggravate their illnesses. Injuries don’t heal easily and can get infected because it’s hard to bathe and to keep clean. It’s tough to find a proper place to rest, according to the NHCHC.

The lifespan of a homeless person is 17.5 years shorter than the general population, according to a recent academic paper. The average age at death of homeless men was 56. For women, that number was 52.

In the U.S., the average life span for the general population is 76 years for men and 81 years for women.

“Most deaths occurred in the conditions of cold stress,” according to the NHCHC paper. “Deaths caused by hypothermia were thirteen-fold more frequently recorded among the homeless than for the general population.”

The temperature in Berkeley on Jan. 15, the night Stevens was found, was 40 degrees.

Barbara Brust, founder of Consider the Homeless, said she has no doubt that homelessness can be a risk factor for death. The things that kill people, such as drugs and alcohol, are often a reflection of someone’s living situation, she said. Therefore, homelessness is killing people, she said.

“The drug use is part of the disease of homelessness,” said Brust. “Not everyone who is an alcoholic or drug addict on the street would have been one if they weren’t homeless.”

A shrine at a 2017 vigil for Laura Jadwin, who was homeless and died in January 2017. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Most homeless deaths don’t make the news. People die of natural causes every day in Berkeley. Homeless deaths usually get written about when people die in a dramatic way, such as when Jason Clary, 37, and Jupiter Marley, 31, were struck and killed by a train in West Berkeley in September. If they die in a public place, Berkeleyside attempts to note their passing.

“People don’t look at them…They just want them to disappear.” — Barbara Brust

But Brust and others have made counting and honoring people who have died while living on the streets part of their attempts to call attention to the housing and homelessness crisis. In May, she and others hosted a vigil for the homeless men and women who had died the previous year on the streets of Berkeley. They tallied eight. Overall, she believes that 24 homeless individuals from Berkeley have died in the past 18 months or so.

A few days after Brust’s vigil, Councilwoman Cheryl Davila organized a memorial for Berkeley native William Caldeira, who was known as “300.” Caldeira had secured housing in the years before his death but spent a significant amount of time on the streets.

In January 2017, activists held a vigil on the steps of City Hall to remember Laura Jadwin, 55, who died in a parking lot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. In September 2016, there was a vigil for Roberto Benitas, 56, who died in front of the U-Haul store on San Pablo Avenue and Addison Street.

The memorial services are a way to honor those whom society shunts aside, said Brust.

“They’re ignored so much when they are on the street,” she said. “People don’t look at them. They don’t even see them as human beings. They just want them to disappear. A memorial gives them a name, gives them a story. It personifies them, it gives them humanness.”

Update 1.19.20: The number of homeless deaths was updated after Berkeleyside inquired about the body of a man found outside the entrance of UC Berkeley on Dec. 12. Dixon said that  Michael Killingbeck, 64, was also considered a transient. That brings the number of Berkeley homeless deaths to 12 and 137 deaths county-wide.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...