MultCo report: 126 homeless people died in 2020

Civic Affairs

The report, Domicile Unknown, is released at this time yearly

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A newly-released report from Multnomah County announced the highest number of homeless deaths in nearly a decade.

The report, Domicile Unknown, takes a look at the number of people experiencing homeless who died during 2020 and was released on Wednesday with a coinciding press conference from county officials. The 2020 death toll was 126 — the highest number recorded since the first Domicile Unknown report was published nine years ago.

While this is the highest number of deaths seen, the report does say the proportion of homeless deaths remains on par with the numbers recorded over the past five years, averaging about 9% of all deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner.

Although this data is from the year an unprecedented pandemic hit, none of the homeless deaths accounted for were due to COVID-19.

However, it also reports that methamphetamines contributed to nearly half of all those deaths.

One of the individuals who died last year was Christopher Madson-Yamasaki, a 26-year-old man who was found deceased last February while experiencing meth addiction and homelessness. He was weeks away from his birthday when he was found in a tent below an overpass on Interstate 405.

His mother, Hope Yamasaki, gave a powerful account of her and her family’s experience during Wednesday’s press conference. Hope described Christopher as a young man who wanted help and wanted to get better.

Like many, Christopher had support from his family — but as his mother told us, the system was much harder to navigate than people would imagine.

“You know, you hear that you can just call 411 or you can take people in places — but that’s not enough,” she said. “People can sometimes be treated for a couple days somewhere, but then they’re released and that’s not enough to get someone stable. The more times that happens, the less they’re even likely to take someone in.

“Especially when people are dealing with addiction or mental health issues — there’s small windows of when they want to get help, and you need to be able to get them help in those windows.”

Among other key findings of the report, officials learned the average age of homeless people who died in 2020 was 46.

They also found that six out of eight homicides were committed with a firearm. That’s the highest percentage is at least three years and aligns with the uptick in overall gun violence the city saw in 2020.

Meanwhile, a smaller number of the deaths reported were suicides than in previous years. Four deaths, which represents 3% of all deaths in the report, is the smallest percentage the Domicile Uknown report has seen since its inception.

The report works to determine not only the yearly death toll — but the characteristics and causes of those deaths as well. It aims to help officials and the community better identify resources and policies to help those at risk.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury was another speaker at the press conference. She spoke to the work that went into the report as well as the work that goes into getting homeless people the help they need. In the report, she gives a statement saying the homelessness crisis is the result of “decades of federal disinvestments and systemic economic inequalities.”

“Our understanding of the scope of, and solutions to, the challenges our neighbors surviving outside face wouldn’t be possible without Domicile Unknown, which provides a painful but indispensable register of the risks and fates these neighbors experience,” Kafoury said. “This report continues to inform our policies and interventions. But just as importantly, it offers a profound connection to the people for whom the crisis of homelessness traumatizes their bodies, minds and souls, too often fatally. Their stories show us that rather than looking for ways to shuffle our houseless neighbors out of sight, we should be pouring our efforts into connecting them with the support, the stability and, ultimately, the homes they need to heal, recover and thrive. That’s what we are doing, and that’s what we will continue to do.”

Others at the press conference included Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines, Harm Reduction Clinic Specialist Julie Lukesh and Chief Medicolegal Death Investigator Kimberly DiLeo.

Full Domicile Unknown 2020 report

Previous years

In 2019, the report found 113 people in the county without an address or residence died. Though 2019’s figure was record-breaking, officials said the the proportion of medical examiner deaths occurring in homeless individuals have remained mostly steady.

In 2018, 92 people died, preceded by 79 in 2017; 80 in 2016; 88 in 2015; 56 in 2014; 32 in 2013; 56 in 2012; and 47 in 2011.

Data showed that drugs or alcohol caused–or contributed to–about half of all deaths recorded in 2019.

Of those who died, 53 were found in outdoor public spaces that included sidewalks, parks and homeless encampments. Another 10 people were discovered in outdoor spaces that were privately owned, such as parking lots.

Hypothermia caused or contributed to the death of four people.

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