Drugs and alcohol, accidents, suicides and exposure to the cold, along with other causes, led to the deaths of 137 homeless people in Sacramento County last year, according to a report published Tuesday.
The Sacramento County Homeless Deaths Report shows total deaths declined by only one in 2020 compared with 2019, but more people died during winter than in past years.
“Historically, homeless deaths were spread out equally among the seasons. But not in 2020. Winter was the deadliest season,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition To End Homelessness, which publishes the annual findings. “Thirty-five percent of the deaths occurred in winter.”
The report is based on data from the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office. It found four people died of hypothermia, two others likely died of hypothermia and six died of pneumonia. Erlenbusch said not all those deaths took place in winter, though some did.
Sacramento recently passed a comprehensive plan to establish homeless shelters and city-sanctioned camping and parking locations for unhoused people. Current facilities do not have enough room to shelter the area’s vast homeless population.
Some sites have opened recently, but others will take months or years to go from plan to reality.
Standing outside his tent this week under the W-X freeway in Sacramento, Michael Belton said he worries about his physical safety every day.
“Anybody could come by and rob you, you never know,” said Belton, 59, who said he grew up in Oak Park and has been homeless for about six weeks. “We’re living among a den of thieves.”
He added: “That’s about the worst part of this life.” he added.
Michael Belton, a Sacramento County resident experiencing homelessness, at an encampment near the X Street shelter in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, Sept 20, 2021.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Belton said he’s met with staff at the nearby X Street Navigation Center, a 100-bed shelter that opened this week, and hopes to move in sometime soon.
“They want you to feel at home,” he said of the staff. “I would prefer to be over there.”
The regional coalition has tracked annual homeless deaths since 2002. The reports show a gradual increase in deaths during most of that period but a sharp rise starting in 2017. Altogether, homeless deaths from 2002 to 2020 have amassed 1,307, or roughly one death every six days over a 19-year period, and one death every 2.6 days in 2020, according to the coalition.
Countywide, there are an estimated 5,600 homeless residents on any given night, while 10,000 people experience homelessness annually, according to the most recent survey conducted in 2019. Advocates believe those numbers have grown during the pandemic.
In February, community groups held a vigil for several unhoused people who died during a violent January storm and called on city and county leaders to get rid of restrictions that limit the opening of warming centers for homeless people. Local governments have opened those temporary, barebones shelters a few times in recent years, but they typically do so only during the coldest stretches.
In March, the city council voted to do away with rules that tie the opening of what it calls triage centers (warming and cooling centers) to the most extreme weather conditions. The city kept its warming centers open through the end of March but hasn’t opened them year-round as some advocates have called for.
Erlenbusch said he was glad to hear Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg encourage city officials during a recent council meeting to start preparing for the centers before winter.
“We need to start planning warming centers like now and not wait until mid-to-late November when it’s too late,” Erlenbusch added.
Faye Wilson Kennedy, co-chair of the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign, said opening temporary shelters during extreme heat and cold will help reduce deaths, but only if the locations are accessible. In the past, those centers have stayed open for a day or two at a time, though few people used or knew about them.
Kennedy said the warming centers should open near homeless encampments at places like libraries or high school gyms blocks from where unhoused residents live, not miles away.
She added that community leaders should also focus on the goal of housing Sacramento’s homeless residents, not just offering them temporary shelters or tents.
“As a community, we have to really look at how we can reduce that to zero,” Kennedy said about the number of deaths in the unhoused community. “There’s no one simple solution other than providing housing to every person that wants to be housed.”
The homeless deaths report also includes demographic details and information on how homeless individuals died.
It showed 59.8% of the homeless people who died in 2020 were White, 18.9% Black, 9.5% Multi-Ethnic; 6.6% Latinx; 2.9% Asian; and 1.5% Native American.
A majority of deaths were accidents or injuries, while only 23.2% died of natural causes.
Most died far earlier than the average life expectancy, which was 77.8 years in the United States in the first half of 2020. The average age of homeless women who died was 48.7 years and 51.5 for homeless men, the report said.
Here is a breakdown of the leading causes of death:
- 57, or 41.6%, of substance use
- 31, or 22.6%, of injuries or accidents, including 23 blunt force head injuries, four drownings, three stabbings and two gunshots, among others
- 22, or 16%, of cardiovascular disease
A smaller share of deaths were attributed to hypothermia, pneumonia, other respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses, heat stroke, diabetes and carbon monoxide.
A majority of deaths, 55.5%, took place outside while 29.2% occurred in a hospital, 6.6% in a vehicle and 4.4% each took place in a friend’s residence or a motel.
Notably, just one homeless person died of COVID-19, Erlenbusch said. Early during the pandemic, state and local governments along with advocacy groups feared the virus could spread rapidly through California’s homeless camps and shelters.
Some outbreaks took place. But efforts like Project Roomkey, a partially state-funded program that placed homeless residents in motel rooms, are credited with limiting the spread of the disease.