The year 2018 will probably be the most deadly one on record for homeless people in King County, with a preliminary count by the King County Medical Examiner of 191 deaths.
Staff at St. Luke’s Episcopal in Ballard have seen three homeless people die at their church in the last year — higher than usual — but Bevin Armstrong’s death was different.
Everyone knew Armstrong. She was 33, petite, blonde, she always wore pink and everyone knew her. Armstrong had epilepsy and experienced intense seizures. In July, she died during one.
St. Luke’s had a memorial service for her, and the owner of Sweet Mickey’s candy shop across the park brought taffy — Armstrong’s favorite — and Starbucks staff brought big thermoses of coffee to the service. A bronze leaf was placed in Ballard Commons Park with her name on it.
“She could be complicated, but she was a part of us,” Pastor Britt Olson said at the memorial.
The year 2018 will probably be the most deadly one on record for homeless people in King County, with a preliminary count by the King County Medical Examiner of 191 deaths. In 2017, the number was 169. There are probably more to come out of 2018, once investigations wrap up and the medical examiner puts out a final report, according to a spokesperson for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
This is by now a familiar story in King County: in the six years leading up to 2018, the medical examiner found a 117 percent increase in homeless deaths.
Compared with cities where data is compiled, Seattle’s homeless deaths are high, although they’re dwarfed by Los Angeles, which saw 831 homeless deaths in 2017.
In 2018, people died outdoors of cardiovascular disease, gunshot wounds and blunt- force injuries, as well as complications from alcoholism, suicide, overdoses from fentanyl or meth. A 7-month-old baby died of sudden infant death syndrome in the U-District.
Volunteers at St. Luke’s found Greg Nichols, 56, dead outside the church one morning in April and, two months later, his wife, Roxy Baker, 62, under the eaves. Workers at a recycling center in Woodinville found the body of Jay Parker, 54, after he was probably crushed to death sleeping in a recycling container on the Eastside. A friend found Sabrina Tate, 27, dead of an overdose from multiple drugs in April in a city-sanctioned “safe lot” for RVs in Sodo.
A more full report and analysis from the medical examiner will be available in March.
Though they seem to correlate with a rise in homelessness, deaths have not gone up at the same rate as homelessness; in 2014, for instance, homeless deaths went down while a count of homeless people went up.
Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, says he’s seeing homeless deaths rise around the country and attributes much of them to opioids and especially fentanyl, a drug stronger and more dangerous than heroin. Homeless people more often have intense mental-health issues, which make them more susceptible to overdose, Watts said.
The homeless population is also rapidly aging into the 50 and 65 range, matching the baby boomers’ aging, according to data from the 300 programs and clinics around the country that are members of the council, based in Nashville, Tennessee.
“It’s robbing years of life, decades of life,” said Watts, “and we need to have a sense of urgency, to not just count — although counting is important — but then to do something to help end homelessness, and help get people the health care that they need.”