Scott Greenstone–Throughout 2017, advocates for homeless people monitored the rising list of people dying without homes. By April, King County appeared likely to have more deaths than the previous year; by September, the count passed the previous year’s total, and by November, it exceeded the previous record set in 2006.
But in a new report issued this week, the King County Medical Examiner tragically capped the year with an even higher number of deaths: 169. That is 32 more than last year, and more than double the number of deaths six years ago.
In the comprehensive report, the medical examiner also analyzed all the homeless deaths they identified over the last six years, and their report sheds insight into where, how and which people die without a home in King County.
The total homeless deaths since 2012 — 697 people — and the 2017 total are higher than previously reported because the medical examiners’ staff found previously uncounted deaths of people presumed to have been homeless.
The medical examiner said this is actually a fraction of all homeless deaths, since it only includes deaths where the person was presumed homeless and didn’t die of natural causes. The medical examiner defines “presumed homeless person” as someone who didn’t have permanent housing, and determines this from where and how they died, and sometimes testimony from next of kin.
Compared to all King County deaths investigated by the medical examiner, homeless people died younger: 87 percent of them were under 65, whereas 25 percent of non-homeless people died by that same age. They also were much more likely to be men and were disproportionately people of color.
Downtown and Central Seattle was the site of more deaths than anywhere else — more than a quarter of homeless deaths countywide.
Black and Native American people had a significantly higher proportion of deaths in the homeless population, according to the report. In 2016, African Americans accounted for six percent of King County deaths but 14 percent of the deaths of homeless people; Native Americans accounted for only one percent of all deaths but eight percent of homeless deaths.
More than a third of homeless deaths in the last six years were of natural causes, such as heart disease. Four percent of deaths were at least partly due to hypothermia or cold exposure. In a previous report, King County Medical Examiner Dr. Richard Harruff said people without homes are eight times more likely to die of hypothermia than those with homes in King County.
When Kira Zylstra, the acting director of All Home, King County’s homelessness coordinating agency, saw the report, she was horrified but not surprised. The point-in-time count of unsheltered homeless people — those living outside or in vehicles — has more than doubled in King County since 2012, to 5,485 last year. The method of counting homeless people has changed to make it more comprehensive, but Zylstra points to the worsening affordability crisis on the West Coast.
“I hope what it spurs is an urgency around this issue,” Zylstra said. “I think that there is a lot of good work happening — we continue to house folks faster and faster — but there is a huge crisis that is driving people into homelessness at an increasing rate.”