Groundbreaking report details Multnomah County homeless deaths in 2011

Friday, 4/27/12 - 2:53 pm

Nearly every week in 2011, an average of one person experiencing homelessness died on the streets in Multnomah County.

The troubling finding that 47 men and women died while homeless in the community was revealed in the new Multnomah County report “Domicile Unknown: Medical Examiner Review of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County in 2011.’’

For the first time ever, with the support of the Oregon and Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s offices, the Multnomah County Health Department analyzed medical examiner records of homeless people who died while not under a physician’s care. The report was instigated by Street Roots, whose staff lobbied for years to get an accurate count in order to better guide the community’s response.

Dr. Paul Lewis, deputy health officer in the county Health Department, conducted the analysis. He found those who died while homeless ranged in age from 18 to 68 and came from a wide variety of races and ethnicities. Most were men and nearly 60 percent died during the coldest months of the year.

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury said at an April 27 press conference about the report that she extended her “deepest sympathies” to the families and friends of those who died on the streets last year.

“While we may not know their names,” Kafoury said, “the details of their deaths may give us a way to save other lives.”

Kafoury said a task force will be assembled to broaden the report’s scope to include more information, and to advise government officials on what to do next.

“This is not what a strong healthy community looks like,’’ Kafoury said. “And it’s not what most of us aspire to for the place we call home.’’

Only 11 of the 47 died a “natural,’’ death. Most died of preventable accidents from substance overdose or trauma. They included four suicides and one homicide. Two of the deaths were from an undetermined cause.

Dr. Lewis said the tally is an underestimate as it doesn’t include anyone who died while under a doctor’s care or in a hospital. He said the report is intended to be the first step in what should be a sustainable and efficient way to provide an annual report of what is happening to people who are homeless in Multnomah County.

Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots, said every day his staff has “watched and witnessed’’ those who died on the streets. He called homelessness “a traumatizing experience to survive day to day.’’

“In these tough budget times, as people are making decisions,” Bayer said, “it’s important to take into account as a government and community that people’s lives are depending on it.”

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish thanked Multnomah County’s Health Department, Kafoury and Street Roots for their work on the report. He also termed the findings “shameful.’’

“This is a call to action,’’ said Fish, whose council portfolio includes being the commissioner in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau. “And each of us has a role to play.”

Watch the April 27 press conference:

For more information:

Read the report: "Domicile Unknown: Medical Examiner Review of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County in 2011"