Last week, Jon Schenck added pink flourishes to a spray-painted memorial for his mother, Carole Burr, near where the fire that killed her ignited.
Schenck and his siblings tied bouquets to a fence above the memorial, a wall with his mother’s name, on one of the side streets next to the Fred Meyer in Ballard. It’s what little they have left of a mother whose whistle could once be heard blocks away – twice if you were in trouble.
On Feb. 17, Burr, 54, became the third homeless person in a single week to die of injuries sustained outdoors. Four days earlier, another person presumed to be homeless died of hypothermia, the third such death so far in the first two months of 2021 – and already half the total number of homeless hypothermia deaths of 2020, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
In December alone, 29 people presumed to be homeless died, the highest count in one month since mid-2018. Taken together, it’s been a particularly deadly winter for people living outside and in shelters in King County.
Public Health – Seattle & King County cautioned against drawing major conclusions from the limited data on weather-related deaths published on the first two months of 2021. Public health officials said they didn’t anticipate any more hypothermia deaths than usual this year.
Across the country, several cities are reporting a higher-than-usual number of deaths of homeless people in 2020, according to Katherine Cavanaugh, consumer advocacy manager at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Pandemic-related stress, behavioral health issues and increased isolation are all likely factors.
Some communities are also experiencing more bad weather.
“People were moved out of congregate shelters, but we didn’t see the same resources and policy support go to the unsheltered folks, so a lot of people had to make do in their current situations,” Cavanaugh said.
• • •
It was a cold morning in Seattle, colder than usual, the day of the fire.
Snow still blanketed city sidewalks from the record-breaking storm two nights prior, and Schenck, 36, was trying to keep warm in a freezing RV. He shared it with his mother, but once they ran out of propane, she decided to sleep for the rest of the morning in a neighboring camper with heat.
“Stay warm,” was the last thing he remembers telling her before she left.
Sounds of commotion outside woke him again. Schenck ran out to find smoke from the neighbor’s camper billowing into the sky. Schenck said he heard yelps from Burr’s dog, Lilly, trapped inside.
Other RV dwellers on the same street watched as Schenck took out the RV’s window and reached inside. He found his mother’s foot and pulled her out onto the snow.
Burr died in the hospital three days later. Fire investigators suspected candles or a portable heater running near combustible items as the cause, common fire-starters for people living in vehicles or tents.
While Seattle and King County have funded or set up hundreds of hotel rooms for people in overcrowded shelters or living outside during the pandemic, the number of facilities opened have not been nearly enough to meet the need. An estimated 5,578 people were living outside or in other places not designed for human habitation in King County in January 2020.
At the beginning of March, Seattle officials announced that they were adding almost 300 more pandemic-related shelter beds as spring starts – beds that were originally supposed to help people during the winter.
Library and business closures during the pandemic have also made it more difficult for people living outside to find an available bathroom, or just a place to sit for a while out of the cold.
Behavioral health crises can also make it difficult for people living outside to summon help when temperatures drop, experts say.
Sometimes, a mental illness “can kind of mask your senses,” said Laura Van Tosh, a longtime mental health advocate and convener at the nonpartisan Washington Legislative and Policy Advocates.
“It can be difficult to recognize that it’s time to go in, or time to seek help,” Van Tosh said. In these situations, she added, intensive outreach to offer shelter is necessary, and doesn’t always happen.
• • •
Burr, who grew up in Renton with adoptive parents, had a loving childhood, according to her adopted sister, Mary Ann Buggs. When she was younger, Burr, who was of Creek, Cheyenne-Arapaho, Lakota and Dakota descent, had a gift for traditional fancy dancing. She could dance on her toes for a whole song, Buggs remembered, striking in a corduroy shell dress made by her adopted mother with high buckskin moccasins and jet-black hair.
“She was always laughing, always joking,” Buggs said. “I just think she had a happy spirit, and gone way, way too soon.”
By the time she was 16, Burr became pregnant with the first of her eight children, Buggs said. Adulthood then brought on struggles with addiction, and some of her kids wound up in foster care.
Yet to those who knew her – especially those who lived alongside her in encampments or in RVs – she was always giving what she could, whether it be food or shelter or the many, many dreamcatchers she made from her craft kit and handed out as gifts.
Schenck said that despite the instability he experienced with his mom as a kid, as an adult, his mom was always there for him.
“There’s a lot of people that needed her in her life and she touched a lot of hearts,” Schenck said.
According to groups that track deaths of homeless people outdoors, in public or by violence, Burr’s death is part of the uptick of people dying outdoors, rather than in shelters or indoor spaces for homeless people. Three-quarters of the 174 people on the medical examiner’s list of people presumed homeless died that way last year in total – an increase in the percentage of those kinds of deaths from years past, says homeless women’s nonprofit WHEEL and Women in Black. The groups collect their own death data in order to remember those who are often overlooked or forgotten.
“If I was out there now, if I had not been fortunate enough to find the shelter that I’m in that happens to be a 24-hour shelter, and if I were to have to do even just overnight shelters, I would not be here today,” said Heather Kilgore, 45, a member of Women in Black. “I would not have survived this winter.”
Kilgore got into shelter last summer after coming out of COVID-19 isolation. But the sudden cold that struck the region, plus the lack of resources for people living outside, have made it particularly hard, she said.
“If you’re not inside a shelter by now, you’re stuck, and you just better hope you’re in good enough health to make it through and have enough supplies,” Kilgore said.
Last week, the Women in Black gathered on the steps of Seattle City Hall to hold signs with the names of people who most recently died, Carole Burr’s among them.
It had been a little over a month since Burr’s RV fire. The snow had since melted, the sun shined and seagulls wheeled overhead.
The women were somber.
“This group should have become obsolete years ago,” Carolyn Malone, 75, said.
“Years ago,” Thalia Syracopoulos, 77, murmured in agreement. “Years ago.”
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