It’s a contradiction in terms, but homeless people have neighbors. Like Donald Yancey, who lived in a tent on National Avenue. He was a neighbor to many. He was Jas’s next-door neighbor since forever.
Jas loved Donald. Donald knew the Bible well and would talk to her about it. That gave her a lot of comfort, which was priceless, because living on National Avenue is very uncomfortable.
No one knows how Donald died – not his neighbors and not the medical examiner’s office. All Jas knows is she came home on April 16 and Donald was dead. People had lined up to come by his tent. His street sister Pebbles moved in that morning.
Neighbors die a lot on National Avenue.
Homeless neighbors are dying at unprecedented rates all over San Diego County. Since 2012, homelessness has not increased nearly as much as most people assume. But the death rate among homeless San Diegans has exploded.
In 2022, an estimated 588 homeless people died in San Diego County. That’s nearly six times higher than 2012, when 114 homeless people died, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiner. The homeless population did not increase over the same time period, according to the annual point-in-time count.
The limited data available for this year suggests the death rate may go down in 2023, but not to pre-2020 levels.
Jas – many people like her go only by their street name – has a theory about Donald.
“I think he died from giving up,” she said. “People really do get to that point. The streets will do that to you.”
That theory may sound esoteric, but “deaths of despair” is a real medical term, accounting for drug overdose, liver disease and suicide. Drug overdoses are the biggest driving factor behind the increased death rate.
Drug overdose deaths rose from 27 in 2012 to 361 in 2022.
The fentanyl epidemic is behind this rise. In 2018, six homeless people died from fentanyl-related overdoses. In 2022, 269 people died from the drug.
Fentanyl’s life-taking power has thinned out whole encampments, said Moses Miramontes, who lives in a shelter near National Avenue.
Tents, not so long ago, lined a nearby wall. Now, none are left. A few people got sober, he said. Most died from OD’s. He knew many of them.
“A lot of good people, too,” he said.
People who don’t know CPR on the streets “learn it pretty quick,” Moses said. He has “pumped on probably 130 chests,” he guessed, while sitting on a wall, talking to me.
I asked if any experience stuck out.
“A woman named Amber. She was already gone when I got there. I started pumping on her chest. I didn’t know what else to do,” he said. “Then all of a sudden she raised up.”
Moses gasped to show me. He lifted his chest up as if it were being pulled by invisible strings.
“You brought me back. I’ll love you forever,” she told him later.
Amber told Moses she had a vision of him reaching down inside her chest, grabbing her and pulling her back out.
“I don’t know how to explain these things,” he said.
Jas was standing there too, smoking a cigarette.
She has only used fentanyl once that she knows of and it wasn’t on purpose. She believed she was smoking meth. She drew two pulls of smoke inside her lungs, but then her breathing slowed and she started sweating. She kept herself awake all night, scared she might die.
Both she and Moses fear fentanyl smoke being blown in their face. They’re worried it could be enough to kill them.
“Don’t even ask me how many dogs have been Narcan-ed,” she said. “They get into it and lick it up.”
(Left to right) Photo of Donald Yancey’s dog Diva, who still lives in his old tent next to Jas, and a banner his neighbors signed after his death. / Photos by Will Huntsberry
Moses knew Donald, too.
“He was kind of like a cut-throat preacher,” Moses said. He meant that Donald was both deeply spiritual and not-at-all saintly.
“He told a lot of perverted jokes,” Jas said.
Donald, who was 46 when he died, was a daily, fortifying presence in both their lives. But Jas and Moses live in a community, where community members die fast, and often.
People talk about their brothers and sisters and children on National Avenue and they rarely mean blood relations.
“It’s so hard, because for many of us this is the only family we’ve ever known,” Moses said. “How are you supposed to leave that?”