WashCo: Investigating whether deaths are heat-related; ‘appear to be homeless’

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Oregon lawmakers hope tracking homeless deaths will illuminate health issues once new law goes into effect next year

Frederick Allen lives in a homeless camp in Southwest Portland. He said he’s trying to beat the heat by getting most of his physical activity done in the early hours of the day. June 22, 2021 (KOIN).

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A Washington County health spokesperson tells KOIN 6 News that among the eight cases of heatwave-related deaths they are investigating, but not yet fully confirmed, three “appear to be homeless.”

That’s according to an email we received from Wendy Gordon, the Department Communications Coordinator of Washington County Health and Human Services.

It represents the only clues so far we’ve been able to find out about how many people who were homeless died from heatwave-related causes across the state, which have claimed 95 lives in total, so far.

Starting next year, Oregon death reports will be required to include a note on whether the deceased was homeless at the time of their death. Lawmakers told KOIN 6 News they hope such statistics can shed light on the issues homeless people face when it comes to leading causes of death, in particular during a public health crisis such as the heatwave that broke records with triple digits this past week that continues affecting the region. 

As the record of heatwave-related deaths continues to rise from one day to the next, some may wonder how many of those who died were experiencing homelessness at the time. 

Right now, it isn’t entirely clear, since that law requiring tracking homeless deaths–which was signed into law by Governor Kate Brown last week–won’t go into effect until January 1, 2022. Official releases of deaths related to the heatwave from counties and the state have not included how many who died were homeless. 

However, Multnomah County, who has been tracking deaths of homeless people since 2011 in a yearly report called “Domicile Unknown”–which partly inspired the statewide bill–did acknowledge the public’s concern on the matter. 

PORTLAND, OR – JUNE 27: Austun Wilde rests with her two dogs, Bird Is The Wurd and Fenrir at a cooling center in the Oregon Convention Center on June 27, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Record breaking temperatures lingered over the Northwest during a historic heatwave this weekend. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

On Friday, Multnomah County announced the number of deaths thought to be related to the heatwave rose to 59 in total, with the victims ranging in age from 44 to 97. The cause of death in all the cases is believed to be hyperthermia.

Across the state, that brings the total number of deaths related to the heatwave to 95, in 7 different counties.

To put that number in context, there were only 12 deaths from hyperthermia in all of Oregon between 2017 and 2019.

“There’s much we don’t yet know about the people who died, including how many were experiencing homelessness,” explained Multnomah County Communications Director Jullie Sullivan-Springhetti in a prepared statement. “The overwhelming majority of people died in their homes, but at this stage, we are not able to release the exact number of people experiencing homelessness because of missing information and because establishing homelessness takes intensive death investigation and follow-up.”

Sullivan-Springhetti said many people initially identified as homeless often get ruled out after an investigation and that it is an established practice of the Medical Examiner and Health Officer to share housing information only after an investigation of individual housing status is completed.

“We share the public’s interest in understanding the circumstances that caused these deaths, and we’ll be looking closely for any trends that can help us target prevention and outreach in future heat events to protect vulnerable residents,’’ said Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County Health Officer.

Sullivan-Springhetti said the Medical Examiner’s Office is still responding to cases, which will take time to review and finalize. They plan to do deeper analysis, which will take time. Once that analysis is complete, Multnomah County will share the findings with the public and they say it will help “all of us plan for and respond to emergencies.”

“It’s imperative that we are able to distill empirically how this heatwave effected our houseless communities. My fear is that we still don’t know the extent of death in some of the more remote camps where folks weren’t able to be reached.”

Rep. Dacia Grayber (D-Tigard)

“We deeply hope these numbers will not climb, but we also know that it will take several more days before the full toll is known. The same isolation that puts people at risk for a heat-related death may delay whether we find out if someone succumbed. Please continue to check on your neighbors,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who originally started the “Domicile Unknown” study in collaboration with local homeless advocacy nonprofit Street Roots. 

Another spokesperson with Multnomah County, under the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Denis Theriault, explained the statewide homeless death tracking bill that goes into effect next year won’t impact Multnomah County’s reporting process. 

But other counties may soon have to follow Multnomah County’s lead once the bill goes into effect.

KOIN 6 News reached out to some of the state lawmakers who passed the bill, which passed both the Oregon House and Senate by June 8 and was signed into law by Brown on June 23, to get more information about it. 

Sen. Deb Patterson (D-Salem), a chief sponsor of the bill, told KOIN 6 News had she known a massive heatwave was about to hit the region and ended up causing deaths, she probably would’ve pushed for including an emergency stipulation to make the bill’s effective date more immediate following the law’s passage.

“It’s a really simple bill. Multnomah County’s already doing this. It would just require on a statewide basis that when reporting the death of an individual, that if the person is currently unhoused, that it be marked ‘domicile unknown,’” Patterson said. 

She said she hopes tracking whether someone was homeless when they died can shed some light on what some of the leading causes of death are among those who are unhoused. 

“We can’t just let them slip away, unnoticed and unrecognized and unacknowledged and we need to take responsibility for the leading causes of death of people who are unhoused,” Patterson said. “Obviously, being unhoused is a contributing factor. So I think we, first of all, we just need numbers, and then secondly, we need the data, more, we can drill down further to those leading causes of death.”

According to social services agency Mid-Willamette Community Action Agency, the average age of someone who’s unhoused and dies is 52, she said. Patterson said knowing the sheer number of people experiencing houseless and the factors contributing to their shorter lifespans–whether that be hypertension, diabetes or other issues–can help government and service providers intervene earlier on, for instance connecting people with resources to sign up for Oregon Health Plan. 

A homeless camp in Southwest Portland. June 23, 2021 (KOIN).

Another sponsor of the bill, Rep. Dacia Grayber (D-Tigard), said she runs an all-volunteer medical triage and care clinic for unhoused neighbors in the winter in East Washington County. Although she also acknowledged the bill doesn’t go into effect until next year, she said it is her “fervent hope” that individual counties will voluntarily report the deaths over the past weekend as “domicile unknown” if that is the case.

“It’s imperative that we are able to distill empirically how this heatwave effected our houseless communities. My fear is that we still don’t know the extent of death in some of the more remote camps where folks weren’t able to be reached,” Grayber said.

KOIN 6 News reached out to Oregon State Police when the statewide death toll from the heatwave was first announced, and Captain Timothy Fox, in charge of OSP’s Government and Media Relations, said that would be a question for individual counties. 

OSP later released a list of all the counties where heatwave related deaths occurred: Multnomah, Marion, Washington, Clackamas, Columbia, Umatilla and Polk counties. 

We reached out to each of those counties, with representatives from Umatilla and Columbia counties saying any information about the housing statuses of the deceased in records would be held by Oregon Health Authority and the State Medical Examiner. 

KOIN 6 News reached out to Oregon Health Authority with the request, but they did not immediately respond for comment. 

However, OHA’s website does contain statistics on deaths in Oregon. The latest report, which included deaths that occurred this past month, did not have information about whether any of the deceased were housed or unhoused when they died. 

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