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Death Toll Rises Among Homeless In Multnomah County

A vigil for people experiencing homelessness who died in 2018 at the Street Roots office in Old Town. | COURTESY MULTNOMAH COUNTY/DOMICILE UNKNOWN
October 16, 2019

More homeless people than ever are dying in Multnomah County. 

In 2018, that tally included at least 92 people, according to an by researchers at the Multnomah County Health Department. That’s the highest death toll since the county started the annual count in 2011.

The actual number of deaths “is almost certainly higher” because the analysis captures only some – not all - of the homeless people who die in hospitals, the report said.

“Many of the deaths are preventable, but prevention is hard to implement if people are unhoused,” said Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis. “It’s been a fairly steady drumbeat of preventable deaths among young and midlife people.”

Ten of the deaths were homicides, including Dallas Boyd, a 29-year-old woman who was strangled in a van, and Tyler Chism, a young man who was stabbed early one morning in Old Town Chinatown. That’s more than double the four homicide deaths in 2017.

Since Multnomah County officials began tracking homeless deaths in 2011, at least 530 people have died.

In 2017, the death tally was 79, and in 2016, it was 80. The toll in 2011 was 47.

The report underscores the problem of homelessness in the Portland metro area. Like other big cities on the West Coast, the Portland area has become plagued with homelessness that has overwhelmed costly government assistance programs. Officials estimate there are several thousand chronically homeless in the Portland metro area, with tens of thousands of others who at some point in the year are homeless. Federal, state, county and city programs provide thousands of families and individuals in the metro area with long-term housing subsidy vouchers and short-term crisis housing assistance. Also, a new program funded by Multnomah County and the city of Portland specifically seeks to get homeless people into housing. In 2018, it helped 722 people.

The crisis is closely tied to health care: Many of the homeless suffer from alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness, severe medical ailments or other afflictions. The link between health and housing has prompted some health care agencies around the state and the country to broaden their scope and focus on housing.

For example, in Lane County, health care provider and insurer Kaiser Permanente Northwest, the PeaceHealth hospital chain, insurer PacificSource and the Trillium Community Health Plan earlier this fall jointly agreed to provide a total of $2.7 million for a project to build a $13 million 51-unit housing complex for the homeless.

In 2020, Medicaid health care insurers will have a chance to focus some of their attention and money on low-income housing. The state is developing rules directing the insurers, known as coordinated care organizations, to spend a portion of their revenues to improve “social determinants of health,” the broad set of living conditions that affect a person’s wellbeing.

In the latest Multnomah County analysis, 36 of the deaths were accidental, 31 were natural, 10 were homicides, nine  were suicides and the cause of death in six cases was unknown. Those who died ranged in age from 20 to 77.

Alcohol or drugs --  from opioids and methamphetamine to heroin and fentanyl --  caused or contributed to more than half of the deaths, the report said.

The 2018 Domicile Unknown report “has caused us to think about this horrible housing crisis in Portland, the street people who have become, for a lot of people, a sort of plague on the city,” said Mark Chism, whose son Tyler was stabbed and killed a year ago this month. “But the deal is, they’re real people.”

In the report, about 20 percent of the people died in a hospital bed, and nearly that many died in a motel, hotel or in someone’s home. About half were found dead outside — in or near tents, in cars, RVs or campers, or in the Willamette or Columbia rivers.

Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sand said housing is vital to health care and recovery. 

“This is about how hearts suffer too much until they stop, how bodies are torn up by violence and immune systems are ravaged by exhaustion,” Sands wrote in the report. “Rather than push for people on the streets to disappear, we need to really see them, and support them with our actions. It is about loving people that much.” 

You can reach Christian Wihtol at [email protected].