State data shows deadly impacts of homelessness across Oregon for first time

·5 min read

At least 207 adult Oregonians died while homeless so far this year, according to preliminary data from the Oregon Health Authority.

This is the first time the state has had an estimate for the figure. Senate Bill 850, which passed last summer, now requires all Oregon counties to track how many die without shelter. It went into effect on Jan. 1.

People died in every age group, the preliminary data shows, but a third of deaths took place between the ages of 55 and 64. In Oregon, the average life expectancy sits at about 80. Nearly 80% of the counted deaths were men. The preliminary data attributes 74% of the deaths to natural causes. Other manners of death include unintended injury, suicide and homicide.

OHA is making an annual reporting dashboard that will have more detail, spokesperson Jonathan Modie said. The final annual reporting dashboard is supposed to be available in fall of 2023.

No organization in Eugene keeps an official count of those killed by the dangerous conditions of life without housing, but activist groups have compiled lists of people who have died while homeless over the past few years to give an approximate scope of the fatalities as well as dignity to the lives lost. The list had 35 names in 2019, about 30 in 2020 and nearly 40 in 2021. The numbers were always considered a minimum.

A member of organizing group Stop Death on the Streets  adds light to tents lined up as a backdrop for h candlelight vigil to remember members of the community who died homeless in the area during 2020.
A member of organizing group Stop Death on the Streets adds light to tents lined up as a backdrop for h candlelight vigil to remember members of the community who died homeless in the area during 2020.

According to the newly published OHA data, 31 people have died while experiencing homelessness in Lane County from January to June. In the same time period, 23 deaths were counted in Marion and Polk counties and 11 in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties.

The data is an "opening to a conversation," said Chris Hecht, executive coordinator at Eugene-based nonprofit White Bird Clinic.

"It's great to know that OHA is doing this, for sure," Hecht said.

Those who are providing resources and services on the ground already have an intimate understanding of the hardships faced by those living unsheltered and may not be surprised by the numbers, he said, but the data may be helpful from an epidemiology and public health perspective.

Hecht hopes more detailed reports on the topic in the future could help service providers focus on where the most acute needs are. For him, taking care of unhoused people after they are discharged from hospitals comes to mind.

"Would that (death data) provide support for us wanting to push discharge care coordination?" Hecht said. "We as a community aren't doing a good enough job on it. I think that this kind of data will give us ammunition for arguing toward that."

The law didn’t attach any additional funding or staffing for county medical examiners to accomplish this mandated count. Several counties, including Marion, said in January that they began to count with little additional effort. However, Lane County’s Death Investigations Division hasn't yet commented on how implementing the new bill has gone and directed questions to Lane County's District Attorney Patty Perlow.

The state requires death investigators to check a box if the person's address is unknown, Perlow said, but conducting further investigation into the "social aspects" of a person's death would require more resources.

"My investigators don't have the capacity to be looking for where somebody was residing," Perlow said. "We are marking the box as required, so the state is reporting our numbers, but I don't know how accurate that is."

Because the current process only signifies where a person was at their time of death, the data could be an undercount or an overcount, she said.

"All the state is asking us to do is check a box of undetermined status," Perlow said. "That does not mean that somebody is necessarily unhoused."

Past coverage:New Oregon law mandates counties track homeless deaths, but Lane County won't give details

State Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, and state Rep. Winsvey Campos, D-Aloha, were the chief sponsors of Senate Bill 850. Lane County legislators Sen. James I. Manning Jr. and Rep. Marty Wilde also supported the bill.

"I'm astonished it's that many people in just a half a year. I'm so glad we're starting to collect this data now," Sen. Patterson said after looking at the preliminary data. "Hopefully, this is a wake up call."

She noted that a disproportionate number of the counted deaths were among American Indian and Alaskan Natives, which accounted for 14 of the 207. She hopes that by the end of the year there will be more specifics about the causes of death.

"I'm so sad for those 207 people and their families," Patterson said. "We have so much work to do."

The count isn’t new for Multnomah County. Since December 2010, Multnomah deputy medical examiners have noted which people may have been homeless at the time of death. They make multiple attempts to identify the residence of people who died, through scene investigation and interviews with family and friends.

Multnomah County’s yearly report on people who died while homeless, called “Domicile Unknown,” began when leadership from Street Roots — a Portland-based homeless advocacy newspaper — put pressure on local government to track the deaths that often are invisible to the public eye.

The Multnomah County Health Department’s annual review of homeless deaths found that during calendar year 2020, 126 people died in Multnomah County without a home of their own, the biggest number reported since the report began a decade before. OHA's preliminary data shows 73 died with an unknown domicile in Multnomah so far this year.

Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-521-7512, and follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: New state data shows deadly impacts of homelessness across Oregon