By Daniel Correia

According to the Homeless Services Center’s informal census, Santa Cruz County saw the deaths of 42 homeless people in 2006. Four of the deaths were homicides committed by other homeless people, and the overall death count is the highest since 2001, the first year in which such information became available.

"We were very disappointed and devastated to see the number rise from the year before," said Ken Cole, executive director of the Homeless Services Center. "As for why, you can only basically say that there are a lot of people out there in the homeless category and that violence and drug abuse is part of the situation."

According to the latest census, there are over 3,200 people without permanent housing in Santa Cruz County. According to the survey, there were 29 deaths in 2005, though no homicides were recorded in either 2004 or 2005. Marcus Banuelos, the day services program coordinator at the Homeless Services Center, agrees that the growing amount of violence within the homeless community stems from an increasing amount of drug and alcohol abuse.

"We are trying to stop the violence," Banuelos said, "It’s an outbreak of drug use and we just don’t have enough resources to get them off the drugs."

Plans are currently under way to renovate the Homeless Services Center as early as April to nearly double its housing capacity.

"We have to get more people into housing," Cole said. "They’re surprisingly successful when they get a chance. I see people getting out of here every day."

On Dec. 21, an annual memorial service was held at the Homeless Services Center on Coral Street where people were encouraged to speak, read poetry, and light candles in remembrance of the deceased.

"On one hand, the ceremony is highly personal, but it also has a public function," Cole said. "It’s a part of a national consciousness-raising effort. [This problem] is getting way too commonplace. We want people to get shocked. And they should be shocked. People shouldn’t die in the bushes."

At the memorial service, Megan Colsom read a eulogy for a friend known as "Gypsy."

"For me, I had to get closure for a friend of over 30 years," said Colsom, who has been homeless in Santa Cruz for almost 9 months. "The community needs to see that we need help, not just food and shelter, but substance abuse and mental health treatment as well."