On the Monday before Christmas, homeless advocates, elected officials, community members and others gathered at a Sacramento church to memorialize the 81 homeless people who died in Sacramento County in 2016. The total annual number of deaths has sharply risen over the past decade and a half, prompting advocates’ calls for new and expanded solutions and promises from Mayor Darrell Steinberg that the city will respond.
The Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness released its annual Homeless Deaths Report on the same day as the vigil. It tracks the number of coroner-reported homeless deaths in Sacramento County from 2002 to 2015 and provides data on cause of death and demographics of the deceased.
In 2002, 32 homeless people died. In 2015, the number was 78. Over the course of that period, a total of 705 homeless people died, which, the report points out, is just shy of one person per week for 14 years.
“Deaths have generally been trending upward,” says Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Bob Erlenbusch. “The goal is to educate the policymakers in the community about how and why people die and make recommendations to keep people alive.”
Erlenbusch says the rise in deaths likely corresponds to a rise in Sacramento County’s total homeless population. Sacramento does a one-night count of homeless residents every two years. In 2015, there were 2,659 homeless people, up from 2,358 in 2011, but down from 2,800 in 2009.
And though the rise in death might reflect the rising numbers of homeless people, Erlenbusch says, “it’s still shocking, especially because the level of violence has gone up.”
In 2015, homicide accounted for 6 percent of homeless deaths. Another 6 percent came from suicide. Substance abuse caused 27 percent of deaths and cardiovascular disease 18 percent. For homeless men and women the average age of death is 49.9 and 47.4 years old respectively, nearly three decades lower than the average American life expectancy.
When it comes to shelters and services to address the problem in Sacramento, “It’s not even close to being enough,” Erlenbusch says. For example, he points to the fact that of the nearly 2,700 homeless people in the county, about 36 percent are sleeping outside because there isn’t enough shelters or affordable housing.
“That’s about 1,000 people out on the street every night exposed to the elements, the risk of violence, citations for camping,” he explains.
The report offers a laundry list of policy solutions from diversifying funding sources for the city and county affordable housing trust funds to increasing funding for alcohol, drug and mental health treatment programs, to expanding the city’s nurse street outreach program, to providing free or reduced cost public transportation to homeless residents.
The Coalition to End Homelessness has a few priority goals it hopes the city will adopt. The first is the creation of a homeless deaths review committee, similar to the one Philadelphia has, to do immediate examinations of how a homeless person died, rather than waiting six to seven months for a coroner report. The idea is that if someone dies from using tainted drugs, for example, the city can learn about it in real time and try to get the word out about it to hopefully prevent other deaths.
Another priority is creating 24-hour weekend drop-in centers. According to Erlenbusch, about half of homeless deaths occur between Friday and Sunday. Weekend drop-in centers would give people a safe place to go.
Following the December memorial, Mayor Steinberg made a nod to increasing homeless services. Previously, Sacramento offered warming centers to homeless people when the forecasted temperatures are below freezing for three consecutive nights. Steinberg has revised that to make sure at least one warming center is open any night the temperature is below 40.
The mayor’s communications director told CBS Sacramento that, “There’s going to be a laser focus on increasing housing stock for the chronically homeless and intensifying our community outreach.” He hasn’t unveiled any specific policies yet, but is expected to this month.
“Hopefully we’ll see a difference in terms of more short-term responses such as warming centers,” says Erlenbusch. “The city also needs to be increasing the stock of affordable housing in our community. The mayor has made that a priority, but even if we had a significant fund tomorrow it would take four to five years to see that housing come to fruition.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.