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More homeless people dying on Multnomah County's streets

The Domicile Unknown report shows more people died while experiencing homelessness in 2019 than in each of the past nine years.

PORTLAND, Ore. — More homeless people died on Multnomah County's streets in 2019 than in nearly a decade, according to the latest Domicile Unknown report from the county and Street Roots.

People who live in Multnomah County, elected officials and social service providers look to these reports, and the personal stories within them, to inform life-saving policies and resources for the poorest in our communities.

"This report is dedicated to those who have died, their families and friends," the report reads. "To all those working to end the epidemic of homelessness. And to those who haven't yet found a way off the street."

"This report is foundational for our advocacy efforts because it really is so clear what's at stake," said Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sand in a press conference Monday morning. "The difference between housing and homelessness is the difference between life and death." 

Multnomah County and Street Roots' 2020 Domicile Unknown report shows that in 2019, 113 people died on the county's streets. That's the highest number since they started putting these reports together in 2011.

In 2018, 92 people experiencing homelessness died. In 2017 that number was 79. Since the county and medical examiner started tracking deaths among the homeless, at least 643 have died trying to survive outside.

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"This is an absolute minimum estimate," said Dr. Paul Lewis, Multnomah County's on-call deputy health officer. "I know the number is substantially higher, but if we're unable to confirm houseless status those stats aren't included in the report."

That said, the report notes the proportion of confirmed deaths of homeless individuals has remained relatively steady: Three-quarters of those who died in 2019 were men, the average age for men and women at time of death was 46 years old, and the vast majority of them white.

"One hundred thirteen of our neighbors are dying years before their time, and in situations that were largely preventable. Today is about them," Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in the press conference. "Their stories have been compiled so they can be read, and it's not for us to look away."

Drugs or alcohol caused, or contributed to, more than half of the deaths last year (63 out of 113 deaths). Among substance-involved deaths, methamphetamines were the leading killer (43 of 63 substance-related deaths).

"And not just by a little," Dr. Lewis said. "I think one year there was a tiny bit more, but this year there was really substantially more."

Others died of trauma, natural causes and suicide. Six people were victims of homicide.

"I also was struck by the high number of suicide in this year’s count," Sand said. "I think that really underscores the needs we have to be addressing mental health in all strategy."

About half the people died outside in parks, on sidewalks and in homeless camps. Most deaths happened in downtown Portland and near freeways, but they also occurred across the city.

Unsurprisingly, more died in the colder months.

All of this data highlights the need for investment in social services, mental health and addiction treatment, homeless resources, wrap-around housing, affordable rent, and much more.

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“Over the last several years in our community we’ve seen an increase in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness,” Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services Director Marc Jolin said. “So people are not just outside, but have been outside and homeless for a longer period of time. They have other significant disabling conditions, those can be physical, behavioral health challenges. Those kinds of conditions make them more vulnerable.”

"Rent keeps going up so the work we do to place people in housing and give them the support services they need gets harder and harder,” Kafoury added.

READ: 2019 Multnomah County Domicile Unknown Report

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