A GROUNDBREAKING REPORT by Multnomah County officials—the first of its kind for our region—has put a number on one of the grimmest realities of life on the streets: According to data compiled by the state medical examiner's office, 47 people died homeless in 2011, almost one person a week.
Worse, that number probably only accounts for a fraction of those who die on the streets. The report—called "Domicile Unknown" to reflect how the medical examiner classifies homeless deaths—doesn't include sick homeless Portlanders who make it to hospitals before they die.
Overall, there are more than 1,700 people sleeping outside on any given night, according to Multnomah County's most recent homeless street count, with a few thousand more in and out of emergency shelters.
"These numbers are not acceptable," County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury said at a news conference unveiling the deaths report on Friday, April 27. "And it's not what we want for the place we call home."
Most of the deaths came in the colder, wetter months—October through March. Of the 47, 40 were men. And the average age of those who died was just 45, with the youngest between 17 and 19 years old and the oldest in his 60s.
The report also revealed the leading cause of death—in 21 cases—as intoxication/overdose. Eleven deaths were counted as "natural," while just two were classified as homicides.
Kafoury was at the news conference alongside Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, the group that first started pushing the county years ago to begin collecting and tracking the data, and Portland Housing Commissioner Nick Fish.
Bayer plainly admits he thinks more work needs to be done. He sees the new report as a "catalyst" that might inspire hospitals and health care providers to crunch their own data on deaths, too. And he touched on the need to protect social services programs in Portland and the county in a time of budget cuts.
"We've watched many people pass away on the streets," Bayer said. "The decisions we make as a government and community are so crucial because people's lives are at stake."
Fish, who will have to convince his colleagues on Portland City Council to preserve millions in housing funding this month, called the results both "shameful" and a "call to action."
"I commit to fighting tirelessly to protect [that funding]," he said. "Now is not the time to turn backward."
Charles Yost, a 57-year-old Street Roots vendor now working to kick alcohol and stay in housing obtained through the Bud Clark Commons, remembered the difficult years he spent on the streets, trying to keep safe in makeshift camps and watching others get sick and never get the right kind of treatment.
"It's dangerous," he says. "It's no playground out there."