By Colleen Sinsky
Last week a 2011 Multnomah County report called “Domicile Unknown” was published, bringing to light for the first time the number of deaths in the county among people experiencing homelessness. I recommend reading the actual report, which includes methods, detailed data, and, importantly- recommendations for avoiding the number of deaths in Portland’s unhoused community that City Commissioner Nick Fish called “shameful.” Forty-seven men and women died in 2011 who were most likely homeless. This represents just a small portion of people who passed away without housing as the report does not capture those who were receiving any kind of medical care or were in a hospital.
Of the 47, only 11 died of natural causes. The remainder were the victims of preventable accidents, substance overdose, homicide and suicide. The average age was just 45.3, well below the average life expectancy of Oregonians of 81.3.
Like JOIN, Street Roots is entrenched alongside our houseless friends, and the SR community successfully lobbied for the report that would capture the statistics of deaths more accurately to better inform future policy and honor those who died “domicile unknown.” We are fortunate to know these folks as mothers, brothers, dog-lovers, musicians, gardeners… individuals who have been pushed or have wandered to the margins of society but should never lose their dignity as a human.
What disturbs me most is that the causes of death indicate not just a moment, but a lifetime of struggle. Nearly half were the result of intoxication and another four were suicides. Dying on the streets of an affluent society is the last degradation in a series of events that have left individuals alone, desperate and hopeless. The deaths of these individuals goes unnoticed, but even more disturbing is that their lives often go unnoticed by mainstream society as well. No report could capture the alienation and depression felt by those struggling on the margins.
What we as service providers experience every day indicates the growing need for permanent supportive and affordable housing, access to drug and alcohol treatment and an environment that promotes the well-being of each member of the community. No one should die alone on the streets, and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the statistics from this report become a thing of the past.