The Homeless

Homeless deaths surged in Sacramento County last year. Here are the leading causes

Friend remembers homeless man who died outside Sacramento City Hall

Heather Kennedy remembers her friend, Michael Nunes, who died Wednesday night outside Sacramento City Hall. Kennedy was camping outside City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
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Heather Kennedy remembers her friend, Michael Nunes, who died Wednesday night outside Sacramento City Hall. Kennedy was camping outside City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.

The number of people who died homeless in Sacramento County jumped 75 percent last year, a sad reflection of a growing crisis in the region, officials said.

According to figures compiled by the coroner’s office, 124 homeless people died in the county in 2017, compared to 71 the previous year. Coroner Kimberly Gin attributed the surge to a general increase in homelessness in the area.

“I didn’t notice any particular trends” that might otherwise explain the figures, Gin said.

Advocates said the increase points to a critical need for more shelter beds and programs for homeless people.

“It’s startling,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s imperative that the city and county significantly expand shelter capacity, especially for homeless youth, women and seniors to keep people safe and alive.”

Erlenbusch’s agency analyzed the coroner’s data and made recommendations for changes in policies and programs that serve the homeless. Those include more funding for shelters and affordable housing; an increase in spending on alcohol, drug and mental health treatment; and more beds for respite care for homeless people recently released from hospitals.

The coalition has been tracking the deaths of homeless people since 2002 and has found that 900 unsheltered people - roughly one person every six days - died during that period in the county. Nearly 40 percent of those deaths have occurred between 2014 and 2017, said Erlenbusch.

As in previous years, the leading cause of death for homeless people in 2017 was alcohol and drugs, particularly methamphetamine, figures show. Drugs and alcohol claimed 36 percent of the dead last year, followed by injuries such as car accidents, then heart disease. The coroner attributed only 23 percent of the deaths to natural causes.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the dramatic jump in deaths in 2017 is “unacceptable,” and he hopes programs launched last year and this year will lead to a decrease.

The city opened its homeless triage shelter in North Sacramento, which provides beds, food and “wraparound” social services to as many as 200 people at a time late last year, Steinberg noted. More recently, the city and county have been enrolling people in the Whole Person Care program, which is directing more than $100 million over the next three years toward a comprehensive effort to keep homeless people out of emergency rooms and direct them to addiction treatment and other services and permanent housing.

More than 600 people already are enrolled in the program, and about 400 of them are “off the streets,” in shelters or transitional or permanent housing, the mayor said. The city is searching for vacant property on which to install as many as three permanent tent structures to house homeless people.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of people off the streets, but it needs to be thousands,” he said.

Steinberg said that steering homeless people into addiction treatment will be key to curbing the homeless crisis. Of 635 people enrolled in Whole Person Care, about half are addicted to drugs or alcohol, he said.

“The connection between drug issues and homelessness is very real,” Steinberg said. “Drugs are killers. We need a very intensive approach in helping people dealing with addiction, and we are doing that. Our approach is systemic and comprehensive, and I’m very hopeful that these numbers will come down.”

Janna Haynes, a spokeswoman for the county, cited several new programs that seek to identify, house and provide services to the neediest homeless people in the area. Those include one in which homeless campers can move into small shelters scattered throughout the county, and another that targets the top 250 users of county services. The county also has streamlined its process for entering its family emergency shelter and put additional money toward services for homeless residents of its Mather Community Campus.

“It’s not just about shelter,” Haynes said. “We’re providing services that will help change people’s circumstances permanently. As we see these programs take off, I believe we’ll see an incremental decrease in the overall number of homeless people, as well as in the number of deaths.”

Among the homeless people who died in the county last year was David Collins, whose body was discovered just steps away from the City Hall building on I Street. His death in January from methamphetamine intoxication prompted the city and county to open temporary “warming centers” for homeless people.

Others who died in 2017 included:

* Gina Martinez, 53, who was hit by an Amtrak passenger train near Folsom Boulevard and 65th Street.

* Randall Koroush, 56, who for 20 years voluntarily tidied up Capitol Park and slept under the I Street Bridge, died at UC Davis Medical Center after he was admitted with bruises and breathing problems.

* Cody James Keeton, 23, who was shot while he sat in a parked car in Del Paso Heights.

* Alysha McLean, 35, killed in a hit and run crash on Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento.

* Mark Alan Stout, 58, hit by a car in North Highlands as he crossed Watt Avenue in his wheelchair.

* Dean Richardson, 56, who was beaten and found dead in a planter by a passerby next to an S Street sidewalk.

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