PORTLAND, Ore. – Eighty homeless people died on the streets in the Portland metropolitan area last year, adding to a tally of more than 350 people who have perished while homeless in the past six years, local authorities said Thursday.
The number marks a 70 percent increase in homeless deaths in Multnomah County, home to Portland, since officials first began tracking them in 2011 and is in line with similar large jumps in homeless deaths in other large West Coast cities where the homelessness has surged.
Portland uses the annual report as a barometer to track its progress addressing a crisis that has also overwhelmed cities from Seattle to San Diego.
In Seattle, a similar count found 91 homeless people died in 2016 and 115 perished in San Diego. In Sacramento County, that number was 71 people and in Santa Clara County, 132 homeless people died in 2016 — a 164 percent increase since 2011, according to data from county medical examiners in those counties.
"These neighbors are literally dying right in front of us," Deborah Kafoury, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, said. "This is unacceptable. This is not normal."
Numbers released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development found the overall homeless population in California, Oregon and Washington grew by 14 percent over the past two years.
The part of that population considered unsheltered — living in vehicles, tents or on the streets — climbed 23 percent to 108,000, in part due a shortage of affordable housing.
The report notes that, for the first time, volunteers in Portland conducting the homeless count found more people sleeping in shelters than outside, but more people said they were homeless and for a longer period of time.
The new details on homeless mortality add to that bleak picture.
Thirty-two of the victims died in public spaces. Overall, they ranged in age from 20 to 78, the report said. Nearly 80 percent were men.
To the north, about 32 percent of likely homeless deaths investigated by the medical examiner's office in King County — the home of Seattle — were attributed to drugs or poison.
This year's Portland tally is also almost certainly an undercount because it only includes homeless people who died outside — not in hospice or in hospitals, Kafoury said.
"The fact that we're still seeing such a huge number of people who are dying on our streets really just shows me that we have a lot more work to do," she said in a phone interview.
County officials said the numbers of dead from 2017 were likely to be worse when they are tallied next year.
A frigid cold spell that gripped Portland in January was the second-coldest since 1941 and took a toll on the homeless. People were found dead of exposure and hypothermia in a parking garage, in the doorway of a business and in an encampment in the woods.
Sixty percent of deaths in 2016 were accidental and 32 were natural, meaning they were related to heart, liver or lung problems.
Twelve deaths were homicides or suicides and three had an undetermined cause of death, possibly from drowning and overdoses.
The annual reports have spurred the city and county to take additional steps to address emergency shelter needs.
Starting last year, the two governments merged staff and budgets to form a joint office to address homelessness.
That office is working to double shelter beds and has opened new shelters for women, couples and families. New seasonal and severe weather shelters have also opened their doors.
The people who are dying outside, however, are the most vulnerable and need more than a bed for the night, Kafoury said.
"They need long-term housing with supportive services," she said. "It's very expensive but we pay for it one way or another, whether in emergency rooms or jail overcrowding — or deaths."
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