The number of deaths of people presumed homeless investigated by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office jumped by nearly 15 percent to 194 in 2018, marking the fourth consecutive year that the number has grown.
Thirty-eight percent of the deaths were due to natural causes such as cardiovascular or respiratory illness, slightly more than the 32 percent of deaths attributed to drug overdoses.
People experiencing homelessness die of the same health conditions that housed people do, but much earlier, said John Gilvar, program manager for the Health Care for the Homeless network.
“Homelessness is, in and of itself, a dangerous medical condition,” Gilvar said.
The Medical Examiner’s Office investigates deaths that are unexpected, violent, suspicious or lack a known cause, according to the report. That amounts to approximately 17 percent of deaths that occur in King County.
That means that even the 194 figure — a 249 percent increase from six years ago — is still likely an undercount, and not a representative sample of people experiencing homelessness.
According to the report, the median age at the time of death for a homeless person in King County was 54 years old in 2018, 25 years less than the median King County resident. Previous studies have found that the average age of death within the homeless population was roughly 50 years, similar to the average lifespan in 1910.
According to the report, the median age at the time of death for a homeless person in King County was 54 years old in 2018, 25 years less than the median King County resident.
The number of older people experiencing homelessness has grown. A study out of the University of Pennsylvania found that one in three homeless single adult males in shelters were aged between 46 and 54 in 2010, up from one in five a decade before.
There are a number of reasons that homeless people die young, Gilvar said.
It’s difficult to keep up with health care needs when a person is both homeless and living with a chronic health condition. Some medications, such as insulin, require refrigeration, adding another barrier to staying healthy. Other conditions, such as epilepsy, are manageable with opioid-based medications, making them prone to theft.
Sweeps do not help the matter — encampments considered a hazard or obstruction can be cleared with little to no warning, leading to the loss of medications and government-issued identification, which can create impediments to care.
And it’s just physically taxing to live with the stress of homelessness, Gilvar said.
“If you’re living homeless, and it’s hard to overgeneralize, but they’re living in survival mode,” Gilvar said. “It’s an extremely stressful situation. That stress itself is not good for one’s health.”
“It’s an extremely stressful situation. That stress itself is not good for one’s health.”
Year on year, the breakdown of homeless deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner’s Office are remarkable in their consistency. The causes — natural, overdose, accident, suicide, homicide and undetermined — fall in similar proportions, as do the geographic locations where people died.
The main thing that’s changing is the number.
The goal of the report is to bring into focus the dangers of homelessness and the impact that the condition has on the real people who suffer from it, Gilvar said.
“By publishing this report, we’re underlining the inherent dignity of people, regardless of whether they are homeless or not,” Gilvar said.
The solutions are easy to articulate and seemingly difficult to accomplish — homeless people need housing, and medically complex people need consistent access to health care.
Neither is cheap, but according to Plymouth Housing Group, the cost of housing a person in permanent supportive housing for an entire year costs the equivalent of three days in a hospital and three months in jail.
The cost of housing a person in permanent supportive housing for an entire year costs the equivalent of three days in a hospital and three months in jail.
Without that housing, things will continue as they are — people dying on the streets of Seattle from homelessness and a lack of basic medical care that comes with it.
“Do they lose their inherent worthiness of care and attention?” Gilvar said. “Especially if they get sick, do they lose their worthiness to be treated with dignity by the rest of us? I personally don’t think so.”
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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