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Here died a homeless person

A former psychiatric worker hopes San Francisco adopts his idea to mark transients' street deaths with permanent plaques.

March 10, 2008|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — For two years now, Ian Brennan has dedicated himself to documenting the invisible: tracking down the exact spots where homeless people died on the streets.

The 41-year-old music producer and former psychiatric worker says he's seen firsthand how much of society ignores the destitute. He's watched police belittle street people with emotional problems. He's witnessed pedestrians stepping over transients who collapsed in front of them.

A few years ago, the East Bay native -- who lives part of the time in Los Angeles -- saw a way to memorialize homeless people he'd known here, like Santos, DeeDee and the Captain: He wants the city to approve his plan to place human-shaped bronze markers at their death spots, like the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"It's a way to get people to stop and think," he said, "to pay attention to the harsh lives these people endure."

If the idea catches on in San Francisco, Brennan hopes it will spread to cities across the country.

Last year, he approached Supervisor Chris Daly, whose district is where many of San Francisco's homeless live. Daly was interested.

"It's a worthy idea where art meets popular education," the supervisor said.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution last month urging the city's Department of Public Works to approve Brennan's privately financed memorials.

Since then, opposition to the plan has grown. Daly's office has received scores of calls and e-mails, mostly objecting. Some say it's just the latest in this liberal city's farfetched foolishness. Others say it alienates residents and tourists alike. A San Francisco Chronicle cartoon mocked the idea last week.

The Chamber of Commerce wants Mayor Gavin Newsom to veto the resolution, saying it was passed without public input. Chamber spokeswoman Carol Piasente said she doubted whether supervisors even read it.

"We don't like it," Piasente said. "How does he know that homeless people who die on the street -- or their families -- want their name or stories used in such a public way?"

Brennan, who has scouted locations for the first five markers, said he would make every effort to contact family members before putting up the plaques.

"But sometimes with these people," he acknowledged, "the trail with loved ones goes cold."

Newsom says he also has problems with the plan, saying the money should go for homeless services, not tombstones.

"I can't imagine why the legislative branch thinks this is a good idea," he said through an aide. "It's ghoulish and in bad taste."

Activists for the homeless support the memorials.

"People who are without housing get dehumanized in so many ways," said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the city's Coalition on Homelessness. "Death is sacred in our culture. This is a way to rise above the insults these people received in life."

In San Francisco, 83 homeless people died in 2006 and 44 perished last year, according to the medical examiner's statistics. Activists suspect the numbers are much higher. A report released last year by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness asserted that over the last seven years, an average of one homeless person died every day in Los Angeles County.

This isn't the first effort to honor the city's dead with street plaques.

In 2000, a group called Artists Against Homeless Deaths put up life-size black-and-white silhouettes representing people who died on the street, posting them on boarded-up storefronts and on the fences of vacant lots where the men and women once lived.

That year, a resident angry at the rise in pedestrian deaths painted body outlines where people had been hit and killed.

Brennan's plaques are intended to be permanent and prominent.

He doesn't want plaques in back alleys, where no one would see them, so he has concentrated on deaths that occurred on public thoroughfares. His only criterion was that the deaths be from long-term exposure to life on the streets, not from drug or alcohol abuse.

He's not making a judgment, he says. He's avoiding the judgment of others.

"For doubters, it makes it easier to question whether to honor an addict or an alcoholic," he said. "This takes those arguments out of the picture."

He's bothered by all the criticism of his idea.

"The irony is that the symbols seem to be getting more attention than the homeless themselves," he said. "If I were a tourist and I saw these memorials, I'd think it was forward-looking for a city to recognize these people."

Brennan whose first name is pronounced "eye-on," grew up in Contra Costa County helping to care for a sister who has Down syndrome. At 18, he worked the night shift at a convalescent home.

And for 13 years, until 2001, he was an intake officer in the psychiatric ward of an Alameda County hospital.

Many patients were homeless, and Brennan helped determine the services they needed.

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