Jump in Sacramento Homeless Deaths Follows Statewide Trend

Experts say the jump in homelessness statewide appears to be pushing up the death rate as well. A lack of affordable housing is a main contributor to the problem. Photo credit: istockphoto.com

The number of homeless people dying in Sacramento County is up dramatically, according to a new report, reflecting a trend that’s engulfing the state as homelessness continues to rise.

A total of 127 homeless people died in 2017, according to a report by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, which obtained figures from the county coroner’s office. That’s up from 71 deaths in 2016, a 75 percent increase. It’s also almost three times the average number of deaths of homeless people in the county between 2002 and 2013.

Homeless people in Sacramento County are now five times more likely to die than people in the general population, the report stated.  They’re also 23 times more likely to be murdered, and 17 times more likely to commit suicide, figures showed.

More than half of the homeless deaths in 2017 were the results of an accident, a third could be traced to drug or alcohol abuse, and more than 1 in 10 deaths occurred from either homicide or suicide. Violent deaths included shootings, blunt force injuries, stabbings and drownings. Less than a quarter of the county’s homeless deaths resulted from natural causes, the report showed.

Janna Haynes, communications officer for Sacramento County’s homeless initiatives, said the death rate appears to be tracking the rise in homeless people overall. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county at a single point in time increased by more than 1,000, she said.

“Incrementally, we’re probably looking at about the same percentage of homeless deaths,” she said. “But obviously it’s unacceptable and we’re very saddened by it.”

Sacramento County is just the latest municipality to report a steady increase in homeless people dying. Earlier this year, Los Angeles County reported the number of homeless deaths had doubled over the past five years from 458 in 2013 to 831 deaths in 2017. Similarly, Santa Clara County reported a 164 percent-surge in deaths among the homeless between 2011 and 2017. Other counties reporting homeless death increases include San Diego County, Orange County and Ventura County.

Not all counties collect information on how many homeless people die each year, and neither the state nor federal government track this data, an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle found. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does require jurisdictions that receive certain federal funds to conduct an annual point-in-time count of the number of homeless people in their communities.

The most recent homeless count report in 2017 found California led the nation in both the percentage of people who are homeless, and the increase in homeless people over 2016, a rise of almost 14 percent.

Haynes said this jump in homelessness statewide appears to be pushing up the death rate as well. A lack of affordable housing is a main contributor to the problem, she said.

“I think a lot of people find themselves unable to pay their rent or pay their mortgage,” she said. “I think that it’s a problem people are seeing everywhere as the housing market gets better.”

Homeless people are more likely to die than people who aren’t homeless because they’re at greater risk of getting sick and experiencing a mental health or substance abuse problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also more likely than housed people to become victims of violence. Average life expectancy for a homeless person is between 42 and 52 years, compared to the typical 78 years, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports.

In Sacramento County, the board of supervisors has stepped up funding for homelessness prevention and implemented five new programs to help get and keep people off the streets, said Haynes.  These include two supportive housing programs for the chronically homeless, a streamlined system for getting families into emergency shelters, and an effort to help young people at risk of homelessness get reunited with family members, pay of debt and get job training.

“I think that it will definitely have a significant impact on not only helping to decrease the death rate, but helping to decrease the overall (homeless) population,” Hayens said. “We’re very hopeful.”

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