Floyd Brown lived in his RV at the 9th and Harrison encampment, and died in early November. People who knew him said he was cheerful, funny, sometimes a “trickster” and made his own jewelry. Credit: Yesica Prado

At least five homeless men have died in Berkeley since August, and advocates and neighbors are raising the alarm over a worsening drug overdose crisis, and the disruptive effects of encampment clearouts.

Alameda County coroner’s office and local housing advocates confirmed the deaths of at least five people who were unhoused in the city. At least one death was due to a fentanyl drug overdose, and another was a hit-and-run crash.

Complete information about all the deaths isn’t available, but Berkeleyside has reached out to the sheriff’s office and others for more information.

The deaths prompted a tense back and forth at a recent meeting of the city’s homeless commission on Nov. 15, which is overseen by both homeless advocates and city staff.

“These (homeless) communities are in intense turmoil right now,” Paul Kealoha-Blake, a member of the city’s Homeless Commission and a volunteer with the nonprofit Consider the Homeless, said at that meeting, raising the issue of displacement, disruption in services, aggravating health issues and addiction that can contribute to the cause of deaths.

Frontage and University as seen on August 30, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Frontage and University as seen on Aug. 30, 2021, after a large encampment in the area was cleared out. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

On Aug. 23, Charles Brandon Polk died at a bus stop on University and San Pablo avenues. He was 34. The coroner’s office said his cause of death was acute fentanyl and methamphetamine toxicity. Polk formerly lived at the Ashby Avenue and Shellmound encampment, which many unhoused residents moved to after an encampment in West Berkeley was cleared by Caltrans this summer.

Andrea Henson, a civil rights lawyer and homeless advocate with Where Do We Go Berkeley, said Polk was “sweet as sugar” and beloved by those who knew him as a neighbor and a friend. Polk was staying at the Rodeway Inn (a pandemic hotel-turned-housing option) and had just become eligible for housing, Henson said, and many people were concerned about him because he had been very sick during the pandemic.

Manuel Ayala, 53, was found dead in a car on Oct. 20 near Cedar Rose Park. His toxicology report is still pending, according to the coroner’s office. He was homeless in Berkeley at the time of his death.

Two other people died in the first week of November in West Berkeley, but the coroner’s office was unable to confirm details about their deaths.

According to advocates, Floyd Brown died on Second Street, and another person named Tom [last name unavailable] died at 9th and Harrison Street near the RV encampment that is now slowly transitioning into the safe parking site at the Grayson Shelter.

Brown’s wife, next-door neighbor, and son stand in front of his bus on the evening of Nov. 5 while the coroner’s team responds to the scene. Credit: Yesica Prado

Yesica Prado, an independent journalist who lives in an RV in Berkeley, said Brown’s wife found him on Nov 5. on the steps of his bus, parked on Second Street. He was last seen on Nov. 1. His wife found him dead after asking neighbors to check on him, Prado said. Neighbors converged at the scene when they found out.

She said Brown was cheerful, funny and charming, and his RV was always full of glitter and beads because he made his own jewelry. He was a social butterfly, and people loved and cared for him though he was a bit of a “trickster,” Prado added affectionately.

“The news of his death spread within minutes on the street,” Prado said. “Everyone was standing outside their homes, and the police flashlights were illuminating the dark block. More people were trickling in too from nearby encampments. Everyone knew Brown on the streets.”

Prado said Tom was found dead the next morning, Nov. 6, in the back seat of his Volkswagen Beatle at Seventh and Gilman streets. Over the past few years, Prado said Tom routinely rode his bike to an overnight shelter in the evening and returned the next morning to eat and read in his vehicle. He only slept in his car when he didn’t get a shelter bed, she added.

The fifth death is a 65-year-old man who was killed in a hit-and-run crash in a Berkeley median, identified last month as Jeffrey Ezra Lindsey. He was homeless in Berkeley and a passerby found him lying in the center median on Adeline Street just north of Ashby Avenue at about 12:35 a.m. on Sept. 6, according to police.

Kealoha-Blake who has raised the alarm over fentanyl deaths in Berkeley this year said the clearing of encampments causes disruptions that lead to deaths in the homeless community.

“All of these sweeps and disruptions of these both residential and tented communities, it does that. It disrupts the community,” Kealoha-Blake said, calling it a mischaracterization to label people “transients.”

“Tom’s death can be properly attributed to that. We knew that he had problems, but we had our little community and we could help him,” Kealoha-Blake said. “[After 9th and Harrison was cleared], he died outside of our community because we didn’t know he had an issue.”

Floyd Brown plays with a dog at the 9th and Harrison homeless encampment. Credit: Yesica Prado

Prado emphasized the same — that displacement increased the risk for his ultimate death. The city opened up a safe parking site for up to 40 RVs in the first week of October, adjacent to its 24-hour shelter that opened in July.

But the site doesn’t accept small vehicles, like Tom’s Volkswagen, and the temporary option (the site closes in September 2022) has been met with pushback by residents who believe it uproots their sense of community and stability, while they search for more sustainable housing options.

“If he had still been living with us, someone could have called 911,” Prado said. “He didn’t have to be by himself … it honestly hurts.”

While COVID-19 drastically reduced capacity in city shelters and exacerbated homelessness on the streets, Berkeley also transitioned all shelters into 24-hour locations, partnered with the county and state for homeless hotels and created additional temporary options for those who were most vulnerable.

“Addressing the needs of all those who are unhoused is something city staff work hard at every single day,” said Matthai Chakko, city spokesperson. “The loss of a single life and reminds us of the deep needs and the limits we struggle with.”

The city is now facing a worsening regional crisis in homeless deaths linked to opioid overdoses, primarily fentanyl, which has been driving an uptick in deaths in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Twelve homeless people died in Berkeley in 2019, of 137 in Alameda County. Alameda County does not formally track homeless deaths, but there are efforts underway to gather data about people living on the streets, which took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The next point-in-time count is scheduled for Jan. 5.

“These [deaths], they don’t really have a full context, because we don’t have a full context,” Kealoha-Blake said, referring to the lack of information surrounding the circumstances of many of the people who have died on the streets this year. “We went through a pandemic, it’s all new.”

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...