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Report reveals increase in Multnomah County homeless deaths

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    PORTLAND, Oregon (KPTV) — The Multnomah County Health Department on Wednesday released its annual report on homeless death statistics.

According to the Multnomah County Health Department’s annual review of deaths, at least 193 people died while homeless in calendar year 2021. The figure is an increase from 126 the previous year and the highest since Multnomah County began tracking medical examiner deaths in 2011.

At the same time, the proportion of deaths in homeless people has remained consistent over the last six years, averaging 10% of all deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner.

Multnomah County conducts this report in collaboration with Street Roots each year to determine the number, characteristics, and causes of homeless deaths in Multnomah County.

The report reveals in 2021, the average age of death among men experiencing homelessness was 48. It was 46 for women. That is three decades younger than the average life expectancy in the United States.

Because of the ongoing threat of COVID-19 in 2021 enhanced the risk of death, according to the report, and had an affect on care staffing levels.

COVID-19 complications caused two of the deaths identified in this report, and the virus was a contributing factor in a third. In 2020, no COVID-19 deaths were reported.

“It’s impossible to capture all of the rippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s lives, but there is no question that 2021 was another extraordinarily difficult year.” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County Health Officer.

COVID-19 also drove more people into homelessness and onto the streets, where they were subjected to an increase in violence throughout the community. More than 500 people identified the pandemic as a cause of their homelessness in the January 2022 Point in Time Count, accounting for more than half of the total increase in homelessness since 2019, according to the report.

More people experiencing homelessness died as a result of homicide in 2021 than at any other time since 2011, more than doubling from eight in 2020 to 18. The Portland Police Bureau reported 90 homicides, reflecting an 83% increase in overall homicides.

Highly potent and increasingly accessible substances, frequently used in combination, continue to be a leading cause of death among the homeless, the report states. Methamphetamine, a stimulant that can overstress the brain and heart, was responsible for 93 deaths, accounting for nearly half of all deaths and 82% of all substance-related deaths, the highest total number and percentage of total cases since the report was first published.

However, fentanyl, whether used alone or in combination with other substances, has emerged as a critical factor, according to the report.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is increasingly being sold on the street as cheap pills, was a primary or contributing factor in 36 deaths (32%), a dramatic increase from four deaths in 2020 and an average of one to two deaths per year since it was first recorded as a factor in 2017.

“Never have I seen the drug supply shift in such a short amount of time,” said Haven Wheelock, program supervisor of the Drug Users Health Services at Outside In.

According to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the number of individual fentanyl pills seized increased from 7,423 in 2021 to 141,864 the following year. One September 2022 bust yielded 92,000 pills and 10 pounds of cocaine laced with fentanyl, according to the report.

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