Reporter seeks to restore humanity to story of a young life lost while living on the streets

Published on
May 29, 2024

Reporting on homelessness in a region with an acute housing crisis comes with an unspoken beat, one of obituary and remembrance. 

In Alameda County, where homeless mortality rates have skyrocketed, I’ve written dozens of stories about people who died while in crisis on the streets. They were musicians, physicians, artists and engaged community members.

Because counties and local jurisdictions only recently began counting the scale of these deaths, sometimes your own reporting is the only source you have to track the impact of the crisis.

That’s how I initially began pulling together the threads for this project for the 2023 California Health Equity Fellowship, after reporting time and time again about homeless people who died on the streets in Berkeley. Some of them, who had no available next of kin, and were unidentified for months. Others had thrived before the circumstances that led to their death, and many loved ones emerged in the days after to remember the ways they had shined while alive.

Kiovonni LaRoyce Lyles, 28, was one of those cases. Days after I wrote an initial, short news story about Lyles dying in Berkeley’s People’s Park, his brother reached out to me on social media to share more about him.

Lyles was a beat-maker, photographer, and loved dancing to the music of jerk rappers from the early-aughts. He died alone in Berkeley, but he had a family that had fought to find him before he died, while bearing the intense emotional and financial stresses of the pandemic.

As I learned more about him, I started piecing together information about people like him who died while homeless locally, and throughout the state.

When Alameda County released its first homeless mortality report about a year after I first reported on Lyles, I learned that nearly half of all homeless people in Alameda County are Black, though they make up only about 10% of its overall population. And the county’s homeless mortality report found that Black people made up 43% of those who died between 2018 and 2021.

Lyles was among the youngest of those who died on the street during that period. In his story, I saw an opportunity to honor a young man’s life, while also illustrating the complexities underlying an unfortunate trend impacting Black homeless men. 

I hoped to show that behind every number and statistic is a complicated story, and that homeless deaths are a health crisis facing our communities. 

In setting out to tell this story, I initially gathered all the data I could find about Lyles’ death, those of other homeless people in Berkeley who died in close geographic proximity to him and data about homeless deaths in Alameda County, California and across the country.

The coroner’s report concluded that the cause of Lyles death was undetermined. In working with homeless deaths, this is one common obstacle. Because some homeless people die alone, it can be some time before they are found. This prevents technicians from being able to determine the state of the deceased when they die, and ultimately prevents proper data collection.

From interviews with community members and neighbors around the time of his death, I had learned that the cause of his death may have been related to drugs — some of which were found in his system in non-lethal levels. It was crucial to do these interviews, to fill in the aforementioned gaps in data. 

With this information in hand, I approached the most challenging part of the reporting process.

Connecting with family members who were working to move through the trauma of losing a young family member during the pandemic was painful. Due to the intersecting crises impacting Black families in the Bay Area, many of Lyles’ family had moved out of the region, and I had to try numerous ways to connect with his scattered family.

After many tries, I reconnected with Lyles’ brother, who shared invaluable time with me and Berkeleyside’s photographer, Ximena Natera. It took a two-hour trip to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. He spoke about Lyles’ childhood, his potential, their favorite ways to spend time together, and the early childhood trauma they faced together that he expected played a role in Lyles’ later years.

Lyles came to life in these moments, and over the course of several months of reporting, his humanity was further brought to life by other family who knew him.

The most important journalistic lessons from these interviews were the importance of being gentle, curious and open-hearted, and always calling and texting back, even when it felt like there was no hope of a response. Every person who spoke to me about Lyles painted a deeper, stronger picture of the person he was and did justice to a life that would otherwise be written off.

It was important then to speak to county and city leaders to understand what was being done to respond to instances of death in the homeless community, and how Lyles death was emblematic of a problem facing others like him.

Because the problem is only getting worse, I think reporting on homeless deaths is more important now than ever. It’s up to reporters to gather this information so that the people studying this crisis can better understand these issues. Policies on homelessness gain invaluable insight from this type of reporting — whether it tells the story of just one person or many.

I’d urge others reporting on this topic to not lose hope when you face roadblocks. Homeless communities have been marginalized and rendered invisible in this country, separated from the resources and tools that serve them. Giving words to this epidemic of isolation is one way to prevent it from continuing unchecked.