Diana Armstrong stood outside the Seattle Municipal Court with a dozen other women.
Armstrong stuck out. Most of the other women wore all black, as is tradition for the Women in Black when they stand vigil for homeless people who have died outside or due to violence. Armstrong wore a loose plaid shirt and jeans.
When she spoke, a light southern accent marked her as a Florida woman, born and raised. Her son, Kevin Rogers, was also from Florida. Armstrong said that Rogers had the easy-going nature of a southern boy, which endeared him to those that knew him, but not always to employers. He had trouble holding a job.
“He was a social, happy go lucky guy,” Armstrong said.
Rogers died outside just blocks from where Armstrong and the other Women in Black stood vigil for him. He was found underneath the I-5 overpass, where groups hold regular meals for people experiencing homelessness.
He hadn’t told his mother that he was sleeping outside. Armstrong said that she thought Rogers was staying in shelters, safe.
The death of Kevin Andrew Rogers, 39, marks the 42nd homeless death that Women in Black has stood for so far in 2018.
Armstrong doesn’t blame Rogers. He had a mental illness that made it hard for him to maintain a stable life. But when asked what she would tell elected officials, Armstrong’s eyes dried and her voice had steel in it. The population of the area has grown and the homeless population along with it, she said. Someone should have planned for this.
“I was raising my family,” Armstrong said. “I expect government to do their job.”
The death of Kevin Andrew Rogers, 39, marks the 42nd homeless death that Women in Black — an organization that commemorates the casualties of homelessness — has stood for so far in 2018. That’s a record number so early in the year, and if trends hold, it promises that 2018 will be the deadliest so far for homeless people in King County.
And, according to data released by the King County Medical Examiner’s office, much of this loss of life was preventable.
Between 2012 and 2017, 697 people presumed homeless have been found dead in King County. It is likely an undercount, and five fewer than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, an active warzone in the same time period.
People who die outside die young. In each of those five years, the average age of death was roughly 50, with little variation. More than half of people who die outside age between 45 and 64. That means that homeless people are losing 30 years of life compared to life expectancy in the state of Washington. Those are numbers not seen in the general population in 100 years.
And, though most of the people found dead are White, 14 percent are Black in a county in which only 6.2 percent residents are Black. For Indigenous people, the numbers are even more stark: Indigenous people make up 8 percent of homeless deaths despite comprising less than 1 percent of the county’s population.
The majority of homeless deaths are due to two things: natural causes (37 percent) and drug or alcohol overdose (30 percent).
The majority of homeless deaths are due to two things: natural causes (37 percent) and drug or alcohol overdose (30 percent). Those “natural causes” include untreated chronic illnesses. In a presentation to the King County Council in April, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin noted that people without permanent housing often get late diagnoses and less management of chronic illnesses, leaving them more likely to die of illnesses that housed people with access to care would otherwise survive.
“This leads me to have some feelings,” said Dr. Richard Harruff, the county’s chief medical examiner. “These are people for whom things got out of control, but they’re still humans. I would rather not see that occurring in a place where there are vast resources.”
Among those who died of drug overdoses, the majority involved opioids, a symptom of the wider crisis around prescription pain pills, heroin and its more potent cousin fentanyl that ravages the housed and unhoused alike. But the medical examiner also found an alarming spike in the number of people overdosing on a combination of opioids and methamphetamine, a stimulant.
Though there’s little precise data on why that might be, there is some anecdotal evidence that suggests people are mixing the drugs in an effort to stay awake at night when it can be dangerous to be found sleeping.
“Staying awake is a survival tactic among the homeless,” said Julia Hood, an epidemiologist with King County Public Health.
People aren’t dying everywhere. Mapping out the location of homeless deaths shows heavy concentration in downtown Seattle in each of the five years for which the Medical Examiner’s Office released data, but also a growing number in the north end along Aurora Avenue that became more dramatic in 2017.
Perversely, that could be good news. If local governments can fund additional mobile health clinics and outreach, at least they know where to go. Expanded medical services is one of the uses of money that the Seattle City Council is considering if it succeeds in passing the employee hours tax, a tax on businesses pulling in $20 million and more in annual revenue.
The road to that money is uncertain, however. A last-minute intervention by Mayor Jenny Durkan reduced the amount raised by the employee hours tax from $75 million to $47 million in response to pushback by Amazon and the business community. At the same time, other life-sustaining services such as hygiene facilities for people experiencing homelessness are also limping along, saved from cuts in 2018 by the City Council, but no longer guaranteed city funding.
On Wednesday, Armstrong and other Women in Black stood vigil in between committee meetings where city councilmembers heard testimony about the employee hours tax. Qween’B King-Rios, a formerly homeless person, sat briefly in front of the courthouse, looking straight forward at City Hall across the street.
This is the sixth week in a row the group has gathered to mourn homeless deaths. They’d already made plans to stand again the following week.
“Save the rich, kill the poor. That’s what it seems like to me,” King-Rios said. “I pray they pass this tax.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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Check out the full May 16 - 22 issue.
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