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Number of homeless people dying on the streets surges in Sacramento

With the temperatures falling toward freezing for a second night, about 150 people gathered Monday inside Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in midtown Sacramento to remember 81 homeless people who died on the streets this year.

The numbers of homeless men and women dying in Sacramento County have risen sharply in recent years, a report released Monday said.

Attendees at the interfaith service read aloud the names of the dead written on red-and-green paper ornaments.

Savanna Lang, 28, died after being stuck by a car while crossing the street. Lang was pregnant, and an ornament was dedicated to her unborn child.

Joseph Mann, 51, a homeless and mentally-ill man, was shot dead by police in July.

Russ Bartholow’s niece spoke at the event, saying her family had lost touch with her uncle for 13 years before reconnecting with him several years ago.

“We remember these that died, but our reflections will be hollow unless we do something,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said during the memorial.

Steinberg said the city and county will work together this winter to ensure that more warming stations are opened on freezing nights, providing shelter for up to 100 people. The effort could include providing staff and resources to faith-based groups and opening city-run facilities at community centers, he said.

Steinberg said those efforts would be “low barrier,” allowing people to remain with family members and pets.

Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy also spoke.

“We have to stop thinking about homelessness as a criminal activity … (and) moving homeless people from one place to the next,” Kennedy said.

Both elected officials said more permanent housing options are needed.

The service ended with participants lighting candles for those who had died.

In a hall attached to the church, volunteers served dinner to about 100 homeless people. Many were given shelter for the night, and 100 pairs of donated gloves and hats were passed out.

“I have been reading about the deaths, and it's touched my heart,” said Laurie Jones, one of those who attended the service. “It makes you realize how much you have.”

The number of homeless people dying on the streets, along the riverbanks and under bridges is going up in Sacramento, according to a report released Monday.

From 2002 to 2015, a total of 705 men, women and children have died homeless, the Sacramento County 2016 Homeless Deaths report said. The report noted that the number equates to one person every seven days for the past 14 years.

In 2002, 32 homeless people died, according to the report. Last year, the number had risen to 78 deaths, an increase of seven from the year before.

The Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness prepared the homeless-deaths report based on coroner's records from June 2002 through June 2015. The report was released in partnership with Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli.

“Sadly, the mortality rate for homeless people is four times the rate of the Sacramento general population,” Nottoli said.

The report, which is issued annually, said that the suicide rate among the homeless is 16 times greater – and the homicide rate 31 times greater – than it is among the general population.

“It is unacceptable that in 2015, the average age of death for homeless women was 47 years and for homeless men 49 years old,” Nottoli said. “Homelessness cuts 25 years off a person’s life. We can and must do better.”

The report described the manner and cause of death for the 78 homeless people counted by the coroner’s office during 2015. Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the coalition to end homelessness, called attention to an increasing number of violent deaths in 2015, including from blunt force trauma, stabbings and gunshot.

“Given the level of violence, all the more reason we need to increase the number of year-around beds,” he said.

He also said funding should occur for both affordable housing and a proposed tent encampment known as Safe Ground. The report supports the Safe Ground concept for safe places for the homeless to erect their tents.

The report indicated that 27 percent of deaths were associated with alcohol or other substance abuse as an underlying cause. Report authors recommended significantly increasing the availability of alcohol and drug treatment.

The coalition’s board of directors recommended expanding the sources of funding for the City-County Affordable Housing Trust Fund to increase low-cost housing. Cuts to a housing voucher program, the dissolving of redevelopment agencies and gentrification of downtown has made lowering the number of homeless deaths more challenging, the report said.

The report also listed every name of a homeless person who died in 2015. The report’s release coincided with the annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial on Monday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

Why they died

Underlying cause of death for homeless people 2015

Substance abuse: 27 percent

Cardiovascular disease: 18 percent

Undetermined: 12 percent

Injury: 14 percent

Homicide: 6 percent

Suicide: 6 percent

Digestive system diseases: 5 percent

Hypothermia: 3 percent

Endocrine diseases: 3 percent

Drowning, cellulitis, diabetes, pneumonia, emphysema, mycoses: 1 percent each

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