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The sad lives and deaths of homeless on the streets of Santa Clara County – a continuing tragedy

No one was with Roger Hissim when he died.

His body was discovered at the mouth of two large drainage tunnels, a spot Hissim carefully selected to be his home because it was as invisible to runners and cyclists — passing just a few yards away in their color-coordinated gear on the Los Gatos Creek Trail — as it was to motorists overhead on Los Gatos-Saratoga Road.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” his friend Bill noted. At 64, Hissim was a lifelong resident of Los Gatos, yet unlike the families living in million-dollar homes just up the embankment from his filthy squat. Hissim’s last 35 years were spent under what he proudly referred to as Hobo Bridge, and until last summer he was believed to be the longest-surviving homeless person in town. On Aug. 19 he died as he had lived, hiding in plain sight.

“You don’t see it here like you do in San Francisco,” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, “but we have more homeless people per capita than they do.”

Hissim was one of the 61 homeless people who died in Santa Clara County this year. When the roll of the dead was solemnly called at Thursday’s Homeless Memorial, Hissim finally found a permanent home. His name was inscribed on a gravestone and read aloud by one of the local officials continually struggling to solve the scourge of homelessness.

The memorial was installed in 1999 at EHC LifeBuilders Boccardo Reception Center, and with more than 600 of the dead enshrined on its dozen stone tablets, the hard ground beneath that somber plot has become the most fertile in the garden. It was created by Loving, who considered “unacceptable” that so many lives ended, unmarked and unmourned.

Says Loving, “We just walk by people living on the streets every day.”

On any given night, according to the 2011 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, 7,045 people are homeless.

That number is virtually unchanged from 2009, but the number of chronically homeless — people who require about 70 percent of the system’s resources — has increased 11 percent in the same period. Rules on sobriety and health often determine who is admitted to shelters or who gets left out in the cold.

We somehow have decided,” says Loving, “it’s OK to ask if people have the right to be housed.”

TROUBLED SOUL

Studies have shown permanent supportive housing — basically, an apartment with a working caseworker — to be notably cheaper than emergency shelters, with attendant complications like emergency room health care, inpatient psychiatric services and possibly a few nights in jail.

Using the Housing First model, San Francisco has reduced the cost of services from $61,000 a year per unhoused person to $16,000 for those who come inside. Santa Clara County’s costs are about the same, Loving said. “We estimate on average that the guy under the bridge costs $60,000 a year to keep outside,” she said. “Crazy, right?”

Under the new system, in the most recent fiscal year, Santa Clara County moved 734 of the chronically homeless into permanent housing.

What kept Roger Hissim living under a bridge was schizophrenia, diagnosed when he was a young man. His mother took him to a psychiatrist who prescribed medications. “But Roger would throw it in the toilet,” recalls his father, Marlin Hissim, now 85 and living in Boise, Idaho. “He just would not take it.”

Instead, he chose to self-medicate with alcohol. “Drinking didn’t work for him,” says Roger’s friend Bill (who preferred not to give his last name). “He got in a lot of fights, got in trouble and lost everything he owned. So he quit that and got sober.” For the last 20 years of his life, according to friends, he became so paranoid that he renounced illicit drugs — except for an occasional toot of marijuana — and alcohol, because he didn’t want “foreign things” in his body.

Food was a different matter. “Roger usually ate out of garbage cans,” Bill says. “He would go out to the Safeway on Pollard Road, or behind Lunardi’s, and he would find cake or ice cream. When you get hungry enough, it doesn’t matter. As long as it smells good and it won’t kill you, you’ll eat it.”

Roger graduated from Los Gatos High School in 1965. In his yearbook picture he is wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a bow tie and an upswept pompadour that would be out of style a year later. “He lived a normal life,” says his dad. “He enjoyed himself, and he was intelligent.”

After a year of junior college, during which he made the dean’s list, he enlisted in the Air Force. But a mere year and a half later, he returned to Los Gatos with a discharge.

“When he got out of the service, he had no use for material things,” Marlin Hissim remembers. “He had enough money to buy a brand new motorcycle, and when he ran out of gas on his way to Oakland, he just dumped it by the freeway. I had a truck, and he ran it until it ran out of gas, then abandoned it.”

THEY LOOK AWAY

Roger’s parents kept him at home for most of the next 17 years, although he was already sampling life on the streets. Eventually, his mental illness became too much for his mother, who died last year. “My wife got afraid of him,” Marlin says. “He could get a temper sometimes.”

They visited him occasionally in his favorite Los Gatos downtown park. “He’d grown a full beard and his teeth had gone bad, so he didn’t look like the Roger we raised,” his father says. “He told me he traveled throughout the country on freight trains. But there was nothing I could do to bring him back home. He just refused to take a shower. You couldn’t get near him. It was very sad.”

Roger didn’t associate with “street trash,” and staunchly referred to himself as a hobo. “He didn’t want to mingle with people of this class at all,” says Patrick Lynn, sexton at St. Luke’s Church in Los Gatos, where a Christmas party for the homeless was taking place this week. “If you wanted a conversation with him, all you had to do was listen. He would talk.”

His friends suspect Hissim would never have moved inside from the encampment where he died, but he did take part in the Housing 1000 registry last summer, a first step in identifying the most vulnerable members of a growing army that remains largely invisible. Bill, who received one of the first vouchers to move into an apartment, knows the reason many people rarely see the homeless. They simply look away.

“A lot of people would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before they’d become homeless,” he said. “But I became homeless in a heartbeat. I didn’t give it a second thought. It was easier. I didn’t have to pay rent, and I didn’t have to share a house with anybody.”

Thursday he shared another friend’s name with the gravestone garden, the 22nd inscribed there in his 21 years on the street. He said he misses Roger. But there is something else, too. He wasn’t there when his friend’s heart seized and his time finally ran out.

Nobody was.

if you’d like to help

To make donations or volunteer with EHC LifeBuilders, go to www.ehclifebuilders.org or call 408-539-2143. To make donations to Housing 1000, go to www.housing1000sv.org/index.php/donate. Donations to Destination: Home can be made at https://destinationhomesv.org/donate.html.