Not News: Homeless Man Dies on a Berkeley Street Corner

By Becky O'Malley
Friday February 07, 2014 - 01:30:00 PM

MONDAY UPDATE: The Alameda Coroner's office confirmed the death on Thursday, February 6, of David Simmons, described as a 66-year-old Caucasian male transient who was found unresponsive at 2295 Shattuck, on the corner of Bancroft, early that morning. The Planet has received reports of a second death of a homeless man, but the Coroner's office was not able to confirm this as of 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon.

This morning, possibly in response to last week’s plea for community help in tracking down rumors, I got an email from reader Mary Ann Uribe:

“Yesterday I was told a homeless man was found dead in front of Peet's Coffee on Shattuck and Kittredge that morning after he was made to sleep in the rain and exposed to the elements. He was trying to get into a shelter but the shelter did not open ‘til late in the evening and he was never told it was open. Also, when he tried to sleep under the eave where he had been sitting in front of Peet's Coffee, the Berkeley Police would not let him sleep there. As a result he most likely died of exposure. He was found dead yesterday morning by one of the Ambassadors. 

“It is my understanding that Peet's Coffee on Shattuck and Kittredge used to let J.C. [Orton of the Catholic Workers] post a sign to let people know if the shelter was opening but they now refuse to let him do that. 

“The majority of homeless people in Berkeley do not have cell phones and they cannot keep calling to find out if a shelter will open. Also, like this individual, they are extremely cold and are not adequately prepared for the cold weather we are having particularly at night where it has hit 30 degrees. Nor can they walk all over town trying to find a shelter that is open. 

“There is a California Supreme Court case called "Sundance" where the court said the police are to "protect and serve" so that people who are drunk, particularly vulnerable, should be taken to a shelter rather than to jail. The police should have given this man a ride to a shelter where he could have gotten out of the rain.” 

I tried to fact-check what sounded like a plausible story as best I could over the telephone before publishing it. This is what I learned: 

The Berkeley Police Department public information officer doesn't work on Fridays, but Officer Jennifer Louis confirmed that a man had been found dead yesterday in the 2200 block of Shattuck. That’s all she could say—she couldn’t tell me his name or the cause of death. 

I called Peet’s on Shattuck, where I talked to a sympathetic young-sounding woman named Elizabeth, who said she’d often seen the guy who died, that he was always there sleeping in front of the door when she opened up in the morning. She and her co-workers had tried to talk to him, she said, but he’d never responded. 

Then I reached J.C. Orton of Night on the Streets Catholic Worker, a volunteer organization which serves meals to homeless people and coordinates information about shelters. He told me that he’d been acquainted with the deceased man, but that he didn’t know his name. He said that he’d seen the police and emergency crews at 7:30 yesterday morning, and told me that he thought the body was actually found on the corner of Shattuck and Bancroft, not Kittredge, in front of the old Crocker Bank building. He said that shelter spaces are generally available, but it’s hard to contact everyone who might want to get into them, though his organization maintains a phone line and posts many signs about shelter availability. 

I checked online to see if this death on the streets of Berkeley had been reported anywhere. I typed “homeless man dies in ...” and Google produced a long list of places, including Berkeley, where people had succumbed on the streets in the recent past. Clearly, it happens all the time, and most of the time it doesn’t even make the news. 

I found no news report anywhere of anyone dying on the street in downtown Berkeley yesterday morning. 

Today it’s cold and raining. On the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco and Hayward and Richmond and Oakland and Santa Cruz and everywhere else homeless people are edging toward death, as are we all. For some of us, death will be an important event, noted in the community, perhaps even reported in the papers. For many living on the street today, death is just the final stop on a downward road to oblivion. 

J.C. Orton summed it up for me: “He will be easily forgotten.” 

If that seems harsh to you, the best way to remember the nameless souls who have died on the street is to care more about the living. Some ideas for what you might do can be found on the Night on the Streets Catholic Worker website. For more information about what the group does in Berkeley, check the articles on their “Press” page, many of which were originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.