In his four years living on the streets, Richard Ramirez watched three fellow homeless people die. One man passed away in his arms.
“Apparently he had walking pneumonia,” Ramirez said. “He didn’t even know he had it. He literally just fell from his feet straight to the ground.”
Ramirez recounted the story for a crowd of some 25 people who gathered Tuesday on the steps of the San Francisco Public Library to commemorate Día de Los Muertos and call attention to the disproportionately short lifespans of those living without permanent shelter.
The demonstration was timed to draw attention to several relevant political issues that voters will decide in local elections on Nov. 8. The group of community organizers, homelessness activists and formerly homeless people oppose two ballot measures, Q and R, and expressed support for a third, Proposition S.
Proposition R would require the city to create Neighborhood Crime Units after the police force has reached a minimum threshold of officers, raising concerns over criminalizing homelessness. Proposition Q would prohibit tents on public sidewalks and require an offer of temporary shelter to those living in tents before their removal.
Proposition S, meanwhile, would allocate a portion of the city’s hotel tax to arts programs and homeless services, setting aside an estimated $103 million by 2021.
“The connection is that homeless people’s life expectancy is shorter than housed people’s,” said Bilal Ali of the Coalition on Homelessness, and one of the rally’s organizers. “We’re saying no on Q because Q would only exacerbate that statistic. And we want to save lives.”
Estimates for the average life expectancy among those living on the street vary, but it is generally accepted to be between 15 and 20 years shorter than those with homes.
Ali argued that by prohibiting the minimal shelter many homeless people rely on, Proposition Q would expose them to greater risk.
“People would be out on the street but they would not have any kind of protective cover,” he said. “Being open to the elements is a detriment and has caused people to lose their lives.”
In commemorating Day of the Dead, protestors stood behind makeshift altars and cut-out gravestones displaying facts about homelessness in San Francisco as speakers highlighted political concerns.
“Here we are again, huh?” said Tommi Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “Fighting more anti-homeless ballot measures. It must be election time, right?”
The crowd laughed.
“They don’t care about the homeless, do they?” Mecca continued, his voice rising to be heard as a man turned on a power washer behind him. “They don’t give a damn.”
Miguel Carrera of the Coalition on Homelessness told the crowd to come close.
If you want local reporting to continue, join us in supporting it.
“We are united today,” he said. “We want to be in a circle. Can everybody be in a circle together?”
The crowd shuffled in towards him. “Please, close, close, close,” Carrera said as he passed out marigolds to the protestors. He explained that the flowers grow in October in the mountains of Mexico, his home, and that they help guide the spirits of the deceased on Día de Los Muertos. He showed the crowd how to separate the petals from the stem and told them to get ready to toss them in the air.
“We want to send the good spirits from the sky, and from the earth, and from everywhere,” he said. On Carrera’s cue — “One – two – three” — the crowd threw their petals upwards and orange specks rained down.
As the rally wrapped up, organizers read the names of eleven recently deceased people who were homeless around the time of their death. Ali slowly walked past the altar, pausing at cardboard gravestones with names written on them in thick block letters, an orange marigold taped above each.
“William Anderson,” he called out. “Say that name.”
“William Anderson,” the crowd replied.
Ali walked to the next cardboard gravestone.
“Geoffrey Pickup,” he read. “Say that name.”