Report: Drugs leading cause of local homeless deaths


The ages of those who died range from 20 to 77

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A newly released report found drugs and alcohol contributed to more than half of homeless deaths across Multnomah County in 2018.

At least 92 people in Multnomah County died while experiencing homelessness in 2018. Drug or alcohol-related deaths contributed to over 50%, while a combination of meth and opioids was present in a third of those cases. Methamphetamines were listed as the leading contributor to 29% of those deaths.

The report also found that 10 people died from homicides, 6 of which involved a gun. Two others died from hypothermia, while 13 people were found dead in vehicles they were living inside of.

The ages of those who died ranges from 20 to 77.

“The number is too many, they are too young, too alone and too preventable,” said Dr. Paul Lewis with the Tri-County Health Department.

People gather in support of those who died while experiencing homelessness. (Multnomah County Domicile Uknown Report 2018.)

All of this information is part of the 2018 Domicile Unknown report, put together by Multnomah County and Street Roots, Portland’s flagship publication addressing homelessness and poverty.

According to the county, the number of deaths is “almost certainly” much higher than what’s counted in the report, as it only lists what can be confirmed.

“Many people without shelter have a disabling medical, mental and substance use issue that contributes to their situation and makes it difficult to deal with when they are just trying to survive,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.

“There is no health condition that homelessness won’t make worse, and no condition that safe and stable housing won’t help treat.”

The recorded homeless death total hit the highest point with the 2018 study. In 2017, 79 people died. The lowest number since Multnomah County began collecting this data was 32 back in 2013.

The price of meth could be a factor in the coinciding death toll. The drug is “cheaper and more pure than ever,” according to Dr. Andy Mendenhall, the Central City Concern’s Chief Medical Officer.

He also warned that meth kills in a different way than opioids — there’s no drug to reverse an overdose or even ease withdrawal symptoms.

“When we’re talking about methamphetamines, you see death from a variety of causes,” he said. “Stroke, heart attack, arrhythmia — and that’s in addition to any of the traumas that result from becoming acutely psychotic. Once you’re under the influence of methamphetamines, you are no longer of sound mind.”

Mendenhall called for recovery houses, treatment access, and criminal justice reform as ways to help combat these preventable deaths.

“We have to understand this is chronic brain disease. There’s not a cure, but people can manage the symptoms,” Mendenhall said. “If we‘re going to help people be successful in the face of a more potent and less expensive drug, we really need to be committed to making an investment in supportive recovery housing, expanding access to treatment, and realigning our criminal justice system away from punishment and towards prevention and treatment.”

Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sand echos that sentiment, saying housing is intrinsically tied to healthcare and recovery. However, in a study released in August, it’s revealed that the number of unsheltered homeless people increased 22 percent from 2017, jumping from 1,668 to 2,037 people.

“Rather than push for people on the streets to disappear, we need to really see them, and support them with our actions,” said Sand. “It is about loving people that much.”

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