After a community vigil held Friday, wilting flowers and burnt-out candles marked the doorway of a shut-down U-Haul location on San Pablo and Addison avenues where a 50-year-old homeless man, Roberto Benitas, was found dead on the street Sept. 18.
Organized by two candidates who filed for the District 2 Berkeley City Council seat, Cheryl Davila and James Reagan, the vigil began about 7 p.m. and ended about 8:30 p.m. Only a handful of the more than 30 neighbors and community members in attendance knew Benitas, according to Reagan.
“I wanted to bring attention to the fact that someone was sleeping there and passed away, someone who had been sleeping there for a long time,” Davila said.
The coroner’s office has not yet released Benitas’ cause of death.
First reported by Berkeleyside, Reagan said that after posting about Benitas’ death on Facebook, many people commented with messages that they wanted to memorialize this incident. In 2014, a Downtown Berkeley Association hospitality ambassador found the body of a man who had previously been seen on the streets near the Downtown Berkeley Peet’s Coffee and Tea location.
“Homelessness in Berkeley looks like desperation,” said mayoral candidate Guy “Mike” Lee, a member of the Berkeley homeless community. “There is not a thing that (the city has) done in the last year and a half that could have prevented Roberto’s death.”
According to Reagan, Berkeley’s 40-year-old shelter system is inadequate in supporting the hundreds of people on the street, including homeless UC Berkeley students.
Davila said she had seen Benitas in her neighborhood for many years. Shortly before Benitas was officially declared dead, Davila had seen him lying in front of the U-Haul location two days in a row and had considered checking on him but decided against it.
“I didn’t want to disturb him,” Davila said. “But now I know that if I see something, I need to say something. … We can’t be silent anymore.”