Santa Barbara County records up to 160 homeless deaths over two-year period

Based on still preliminary analysis, up to 160 homeless people may have died in Santa Barbara County during the years 2019 and 2020. Broken down by year, 2019 could have seen 76 homeless deaths and for 2020, the number could be 84.

Those numbers remain somewhat raw and uncooked, according to Santa Barbara County epidemiologist Ralph Barbosa, who leads the annual homeless death count and warned the numbers could be significantly lower by the time the report final will be delivered to county supervisors in February. It turns out that determining if someone was homeless at the time of their death is much more difficult than it might seem at first glance.

“It seems so simple, doesn’t it?” Barbosa said. “But it’s not.”

It turns out that many of the federal privacy protections regarding the release of medical information also apply to deceased individuals, making it difficult and time-consuming for the seven-bean salad of government agencies involved to share information. in homeless mortality reviews. Additionally, Barbosa noted, federal agencies have multiple definitions of what constitutes “homelessness.” One relates to housing and the other to medical conditions. Some of those believed to have been homeless may have simply ended their lives estranged and alienated from loved ones.

Initial accounts of where the bodies were found – on train tracks, in an encampment or in a shelter, for example – often turn out to be anecdotal, sketchy and inaccurate.

“It’s not just a box the coroner can check,” Barbosa added.

In fact, he says, the coroner will sometimes use the term “transient” to describe homelessness; other times the same word will be used to describe a deceased going from one place to another destination.

In Santa Barbara County, people like Barbosa have been monitoring the number and circumstances of homeless deaths since 1989. Representatives from major county hospitals, homeless outreach agencies, the public guardian’s office, the sheriff’s office, department of social services join him. , and the Department of Behavioral Wellness.

Homeless deaths are tracked in part because of federal requirements placed on government agencies that take public funds to provide health care to homeless people. It is also used to determine if enough doctors, nurses and medical professionals are deployed in sufficient numbers in the right places.

How and where someone dies may have epidemiological significance, but again, Barbosa said, the cause isn’t always obvious. “Does your next of kin know any of your immediate medical history?” He asked.

The numbers reported so far, he said, are consistent with numbers released “at this stage in the process” and do not indicate a big jump. The real question, he said, is what happens to the numbers over the next 30 days of winnowing and checking. In 2017, the county reported 44 homeless deaths. In 2016, it was 44; in 2015, 40; and in 2014, 32.

Typically, around 80% of those who die are male, with the vast majority being Caucasian and the average age being in their 50s. Over the years, the number of veterans represented in this population has fluctuated from 15.6% to 2.5%, but has mostly hovered around 9-10%. Similarly, just under half died outdoors. Typically, the highest number of deaths occurred during the winter months.

As Santa Barbara enters a cold spell – accompanied by last week’s punishing but restorative rains – the issue of weather takes on a sense of urgency. This week, the county’s emergency shelter system – operating out of various churches across the county – has now been activated and will remain on alert until March 31. The system, informally dubbed the Freedom Warming Center, has yet to provide a single bed. sheltered overnight, but the gates will open if temperatures drop below 40 degrees or if there is a 50% chance – or more – of precipitation for two consecutive days.

This system was launched in 2009 after a homeless man nicknamed “Freedom” died from exposure while sitting in a wheelchair outside the Cacique Street homeless shelter. on a cold, rainy night. Currently, it is run by Good Samaritan Shelter Services and involves 12 congregations that take turns opening their doors.

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