1461189807-screen_shot_2016-04-20_at_3.03.01_pm.png
ADAM WICKHAM

At least 79 people who were homeless in Multnomah County died last year, according to a report released by the county this afternoon. That's nearly two people every week.

"This is hard information to know," said Kaia Sand, the director of Street Roots, at an afternoon press conference.

The county's annual "Domicile Unknown" report uses data collected by the state and county medical examiners to tally the number of people who died without a home address (marked "domicile unknown" on their death certificate). This year's number is nearly unchanged from 2016, when the county reported 80 deaths of people who were homeless at the time they died.

"I'm going to quote you some numbers, but everyone knows that the numbers are individuals," said Paul Lewis, the Multnomah County health officer. "Seventy-nine people... it's like having a large overnight shelter collapse."

According to Lewis, 79 is the "absolute rock-solid minimum" of how many people actually died while homeless in 2017.

He noted that the age range of all 2017 deaths—from under one year old to 81—is the widest he's seen since the county began collecting this data in 2011.

"The average age [of death] is in the forties—decades before one would expect a housed person to die," Lewis said.

A memorial for the Street Roots vendors who have passed away in 2018.
A memorial for the Street Roots vendors who have passed away in 2018. Alex Zielinski

In Oregon, the leading cause of death is cancer or heart disease. The leading cause of death for the majority of the homeless who died last year, is drug or alcohol consumption. Of those substance-related deaths, nearly half of them were linked to methanphetamine use. Seventy-five percent of those who died were men, and 81 percent were white.

This is the first year meth use surpassed opioid use as cause of death. Portland Police Officer Carlos Pagan, an investigator in the police bureau's Drugs and Vice Division, attributed that spike to the low cost and high purity of meth that's being imported to the US from Mexico. Pagan said he's spoken with a number of homeless people who began using meth to replace sleep.

"They told me, if they don't have a place to lay their head and they're cold and they're hungry, it's best if they don't go to sleep," Pagan said. "So they wander the streets, and try to stay awake."

Nearly 40 percent of the 2017 deaths took place in public spaces. Sixteen percent died in a hospital and eleven percent were found in a car or camper.

Support The Portland Mercury

The majority of these deaths were marked "accidental," either from drug or alcohol use, physical trauma, asphyxiation, or hypothermia. Portland's extremely cold winter of 2017 contributed to five people dying of hypothermia in January 2017. Six people died from suicide.

Multnomah County began tracking this annual number in 2011, a year with 47 recorded homeless deaths. In total, 438 homeless people have died in Multnomah County in the past seven years. Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the reason the county continues to record this number is simple.

"No one should have to die alone and on the streets because the do not have a home," Kafoury said, then paused. "No one should have to die alone and on the streets because the do not have a home."