This is the first year the Oregon Health Authority has reported deaths among Oregon’s homeless
Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, hears a question Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, as Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, reads in the background. [Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle]
Newly released data on Oregon’s homeless who died this year shows a need for more detailed reporting and more resources, said the state senator who requested the data from the Capital Chronicle.
A 2021 bill authored by Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, would require the state to keep records of people who died without a fixed address, listing their address as “unknown address” on death records. An initial report released by the Oregon Health Authority last month showed 207 homeless people died in Oregon between January and June.
Patterson said he knew homeless people died before they received services, which is why he wrote the law. But seeing evidence that hundreds of Oregonians have died on the streets was still shocking, he said.
“It was a shocking number to see in print,” he said. “And it doesn’t even include all of June’s data, so it’s not even half a year.”
And the real number may be even higher, he acknowledged. True estimates of a state’s homeless population are difficult to capture because people who are ashamed of being homeless may provide their last known address or the address of a loved one instead of saying to the homeless authorities.
More than 80% of Oregonians who died homeless were overwhelmingly white (170 of 207), nearly 80% were male (165), and 65% were middle-aged: 69 of those who died were between 55 to 64 years old, while 43 were between 45 and 54 and 33 between 65 and 74. Only one child died without shelter, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
But while most of the deaths were among white people, people of color, especially indigenous people, were overrepresented compared to their numbers in the general population. Thirteen of the 207 people who died were identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, but they represented 28 deaths in a population of 100,000. For white deceased, this rate was 5.1 deaths per 100,000 population.
Patterson said these statistics show the need to work with Oregon tribes to prevent homelessness and get resources to people who are homeless. He has spoken to tribal members about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, he said, but they also need to look at the men.
“There’s a lot of systemic inequality that we need to look at, and we need their voices to help us understand,” she said.
More than a third of the deaths occurred in the Portland area, but all regions of the state were affected.
The health authority listed natural causes as responsible for 154 of the deaths, and Patterson said he wants more clarity on what that means.
“What are the natural causes when you are lying in the street?” she asked. “Does it mean untreated diabetes? Does it mean someone would die if it was freezing? We need more information.”
Patterson said he expects the numbers this year to be unusually high due to complications from the pandemic and to decrease as the state makes more resources available. For example, he said, Northwest Human Services in Salem tries to track people and help them keep appointments for medical care.
“That was much more difficult during the pandemic, but they’re playing ball, so I’m hoping that as we catch up and as we get people to stay, those numbers will go down,” Patterson said.
The $400 million the Legislature provided this year for housing and homeless services should help, Patterson said. The money includes about $50 million more for Project Turnkey, approved in 2020 with nearly $77 million for nonprofits to buy motels and turn them into transitional housing.