How homeless people died in Denver in 2016

The 171 homeless people who died in 2016 “are the highest numbers that we’ve seen,” said Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

A man sleeps under a tarp under a train bridge near City of Cuernavaca Park. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)right to rest; camping ban; homeless; cowx; weather; cold; snow; winter; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado; denverite;
A man sleeps under a tarp under a train bridge near City of Cuernavaca Park. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) right to rest; camping ban; homeless; cowx; weather; cold; snow; winter; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado; denverite;
A man sleeps under a tarp under a train bridge near City of Cuernavaca Park. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Every year the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless works with the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner and 25 social service agencies in the Denver metro area to account for the homeless people who have passed.

The coalition ends up with two numbers: the people the medical examiner can formally and officially determine were homeless and the people the community knows have died. By either measure, a lot more people died on the streets this year than in years past.

“These are the highest numbers that we’ve seen,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the coalition.

The coalition’s homeless death review for 2016 found that 171 people from the Denver homeless community had died. Meanwhile, the medical examiner’s office identified 79 homeless people who had died in the city and county of Denver between Jan. 1, 2016, and Nov. 22, 2016.

In 2014, the coalition found that 84 homeless people died, 41 of whom were classified as homeless by the medical examiner. In 2015, the medical examiner identified 50 homeless deaths. (The coalition did not have the resources that year to conduct the more extensive survey.)

Homeless deaths by year. (Erica Meltzer/Denverite)
These numbers actually reflect 10 to 11 months of the year, as there is a delay in determining cause of death and homeless status. Via Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. (Erica Meltzer/Denverite)

The larger number in the coalition review includes people who may have died in neighboring counties but who were associated with and known in the Denver homeless community.

Why are the numbers so high?

“We have a lot more people who are forced to live on the streets, and as that number goes up, we’ll have more deaths,” Alderman said. “As the affordable housing crisis gets worse, more people will be on the streets unprepared. Even though we haven’t seen the kind of extreme temperatures that we saw in other years, we did have some very cold and very wet nights. It’s a combination of having more people and the circumstances.”

Average life expectancy in the United States is 77 years, but for people with serious mental illness, it’s just 55 years. For people who are homeless, it’s 47.

In most of these cases, “exposure” is not the official cause of death, but Alderman said there is little doubt that living outside, exposed to the elements, and the stress of being homeless exacerbate underlying health problems.

Chris Walker at Westword tried to get more detailed information about deaths from cold and came up with eight confirmed deaths from hypothermia between February 2015 and April 2016. It can take up to two months for the medical examiner to determine if someone is homeless, so if someone died in the last several weeks, they wouldn’t show up in that total.

Winter isn’t the most dangerous time of year. It accounted for just 15 percent of the deaths in 2016, while 30 percent of the deaths occurred during the summer. Heat stroke, dehydration and severe sun stroke all pose significant health risks, the report said.

Here’s what we know about who died in 2016:

Age (total count):

  • 20 and younger: 2 people
  • 21-30: 14
  • 31-40: 14
  • 41-50: 12
  • 51-60: 23
  • 61 and older: 14

Cause of death (percent):

  • Accident: 42 percent
  • Natural causes: 32 percent
  • Homicide: 9 percent
  • Undetermined: 9 percent
  • Suicide: 8 percent

Drugs and alcohol were a contributing factor in many of the deaths, according to the medical examiner.

According to the homeless death review:

Compared to the general population, homeless individuals are more likely to fall victim to accidental deaths. Traffic accidents are three times more likely and infections twice as likely among the homeless population than in the general population. Older, chronically homeless individuals are at increased likelihood of being violently attacked by someone, with one in four attacks ending in death. The suicide rate among the homeless population is nine times higher than the general population, with those sleeping on the streets being 35 times more likely to commit suicide.

The names of the people identified in the death review are read aloud at a memorial service each year. It’s a way to recognize those who may not have had a proper funeral or memorial and who may be estranged from family and friends from earlier in their life.

Alderman said the numbers show the continued importance of emergency shelter and other services.

“We just can’t let people die on the streets while we work out long-term solutions,” she said. “(The homeless memorial) gives Denver an opportunity to develop an intolerance for letting this many people die in the streets.”

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.