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126 homeless people died in Oregon’s largest county in 2020

Two people sleep on a street Sept. 18, 2017, in downtown Portland. A record 126 people died in 2020 while experiencing homelessness in Oregon’s Multnomah County, home to Portland, officials said Wednesday.  (Associated Press)
Two people sleep on a street Sept. 18, 2017, in downtown Portland. A record 126 people died in 2020 while experiencing homelessness in Oregon’s Multnomah County, home to Portland, officials said Wednesday. (Associated Press)
By Sara Cline Associated Press

PORTLAND – A record 126 people died in 2020 while experiencing homelessness in Oregon’s most populous county, officials said Wednesday.

None of the deaths in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, were attributed to COVID-19. Instead, methamphetamines were a factor in nearly half of the deaths, which were a record number since officials began tracking homeless deaths a decade ago.

“Over the course of nine reports, this has done more than simply remind us that weather, violence, trauma and instability that people are exposed to when they don’t have safe housing is often fatal,” County Chair Deborah Kafoury said while presenting the annual ”Domicile Unknown” report. “It also reminds us that behind each death is a name, a family, a set of circumstances and a story.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, there was no vaccine immediately available and the homeless population was among the most vulnerable groups – with an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 – due to congregate living settings and underlying health conditions.

But in what Jennifer Vines, the county’s health officer, described as a “surprising finding” none of the county’s homeless deaths were attributed to the virus.

Vines said possible explanations for the number are an increasingly young homeless population – as younger adults are less likely to be hospitalized due to the illness – and because there were no known COVID-19 outbreaks for people living outside in 2020 and few outbreaks in shelters.

Vines said it is possible some COVID-19 deaths were omitted, as any homeless individuals hospitalized for at least 24 hours prior to a natural death were not captured in the report.

However, in 62 deaths, methamphetamines were a significant factor. Vines said officials have heard reports that meth is being made “stronger, cheaper and more available on our streets.”

Unlike opioids, there’s no treatment that eases meth intoxication or that helps with withdrawal and cravings and no equivalent of naloxone, which reverses an opioid overdose, Vines said.

Among last year’s deaths was Christopher Madson-Yamasaki, who died after overdosing on methamphetamines. The 26-year-old’s mother, Hope Yamasaki, emotionally recounted, on Wednesday, her son’s struggle to find help.

Yamasaki said her son, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder – a chronic condition in which someone experiences symptoms of schizophrenia and disorders such as depression – spent years going in and out of programs.

“I can’t even count. We went back and forth to in-patient,” Yamasaki said. “He was kicked out of rehab because of mental health problems and kicked out of mental health programs because of drugs.”

But on a February morning in 2020, Yamasaki received a knock on her door.

“My daughter and I could feel something was very wrong and she begged me not to answer. I had to,” Yamasaki said. A police officer stood in front of her. “I learned … my oldest son left this world. He was kicked out of the shelter because he was smoking on the fire escape and acting erratically. He was found in a tent in northwest Portland, not too far from where he went to school.”

The average age of death among people experiencing homelessness was 46, more than three decades younger than the average life expectancy for someone living in the U.S. In addition, nearly half of those who died last year were found in outdoor public spaces, including sidewalks, parks and homeless encampments.

Oregon has a higher rate of people experiencing homelessness than nearly every other state in the country.

A 2020 federal review found that 35 people in Oregon are experiencing homelessness per 10,000. Only three states had a higher rate: New York (47 people per 10,000), Hawaii (46 people per 10,000) and California (41 people per 10,000).

In Multnomah County, more than 4,000 people experienced homelessness in 2019 – half were “unsheltered,” or sleeping outside.

When the county began tracking the number of homeless people who died in 2011 there were 47.

“The houseless matter,” Yamasaki said. “Those who have mental health issues and addiction difficulties matter. Chris mattered.”

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