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4 people have died at City of San Diego safe sleeping sites, autopsy sheds light on 1 death

Foul odor led to discovery of man's body, according to Medical Examiner
Shari Kollath
Posted at 4:44 PM, Apr 12, 2024

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A homeless man living at one of the City of San Diego’s safe sleeping sites was decomposing on a cot in his tent before someone realized he was dead last year.

The Office of the Medical Examiner said in an autopsy report obtained by Team 10 that Ralph Threatt was found on a “foul odor check.”

The 65-year-old had been living at the city’s 20th and B safe sleeping site in Golden Hill. He's one of four people who've died at the city's two safe sleeping sites, Team 10 has confirmed.

The Medical Examiner ruled Threatt's death an accident due to self-administered fentanyl and meth. Drug paraphernalia including foil, a pipe, and a torch were found in his tent.

“It’s shocking to me that nobody is very alarmed about this,” said Shari Kollath, a homeless woman, who moved into the site last October.

'Nobody knew if he belonged'

Team 10 started looking into Threatt’s death after getting a tip the senior had been dead for several days before anyone noticed last year.

“What was sad was that nobody even knew who he was or if he belonged here,” said Shawn Swearingen, a homeless resident of the site, in an interview last November.

Kollath said it wasn’t until recently that welfare checks started happening at the site, which is run by the Dreams for Change nonprofit.

She said Threatt isn’t the only client who’s passed away at the parking lot, which has food, restrooms, laundry facilities, and basic medical care for the homeless.
“A woman passed away from a hernia and I heard her screaming in the middle of the night,” she told Team 10 in an interview.

Shari Kollath
Shari Kollath, a homeless woman, stands outside the City of San Diego's safe sleeping site in Golden Hill.

Kollath said she was recently evicted from the site after she says she was wrongfully accused of selling drugs. She gave her opinion on the safe sleeping program.

“I didn’t sleep in my tent… I just don't feel safe. There's people that you don't even know that are in there. They don't do a background check on you,” she said.

The city told Team 10 that Kollath was evicted for violating a code of conduct. It confirmed four people total have died at its safe sleeping sites.

Krisha Marquis has been living at the Golden Hill site since January and didn’t share Kollath’s safety concerns.
“This place provides a safe environment for people who don't have another place to go,” she said in an interview outside the parking lot.

She’s a fierce advocate of her temporary home and Dreams for Change.

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Shawn Swearingen has been living at the city's safe sleeping site for the homeless in an operations yard. He said one of his peers was dead inside a tent for some time before being found.

“On the street, I guarantee you there are more homeless deaths out there unaccounted for than there are in here," Marquis said.

She told us the site is better run than transitional housing for the homeless she was living in.

City of San Diego spokesperson Matt Hoffman said the safety and well-being of residents at the safe sleeping site is the program’s number one priority.

He said contracted staff members are always working to balance respect for an individual’s privacy with the need to ensure their safety and well-being.

“Regular wellness checks are conducted and out of an abundance of caution, staff have implemented more thorough procedures to verify a person’s status during a wellness check,” he said in a statement to Team 10.

City calls sites a lifeline to hundreds

Hoffman noted when people enter the safe sleeping program, they agree not to bring drugs and alcohol.

He called the city’s two safe sleeping sites a “lifeline” to the roughly 500 people coming out of the crisis-care cycle. Hoffman said it lets them get stabilized and puts them on a path toward housing.

“To suggest sleeping on the streets is safer than these sites is flat-out inappropriate,” Hoffman said.

Dreams for Change told Team 10 it’s committed to the well-being of its participants and is always responsive to their needs and an individual’s wishes when they’re in distress.

"Sadly, we have had people pass away on our sites. As you know, the death of a single unhoused person is a tragic loss. While we understand that this is a reality all service providers experience, our focus remains on doing everything we can to prevent such incidents and ensure the safety of our participants,” the organization said in a statement.

Kollath hopes Threatt’s memory isn’t forgotten.

“Somebody has to mourn him,” she said. “Just because we're homeless doesn't mean we're lost people.

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