The bodies turn up in snowbanks. Behind utility boxes. Face-down in creeks. In the woods and under bushes.
Sometimes they’re found at bus stops, in parking lots or on the sidewalk of busy city streets.
At least 53 people have died outdoors in Anchorage since 2017, according to Anchorage police records compiled by the Anchorage Daily News. How many were homeless? No one knows for sure.
Anchorage spends tens of millions of dollars every year addressing homelessness. An estimated 1,100 people are officially homeless in Anchorage, and some 7,900 sought some form of homeless assistance in 2019. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was a long-standing public health and safety crisis, a perennial problem that draws intense public debate, the formation of blue-ribbon panels and the creation of dense strategy plans. But when people die on the streets of the city, their deaths mostly go unnoticed.
The state agency that issues death records in Alaska does not categorize the dead by their housing status. There’s no requirement to do so, said Clinton Bennett, spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Services.
“We don’t have a box to check that says ’homeless,’ ” said Clint Farr, the state’s chief of health analytics and vital records.
Without knowing how many homeless people die each year, where and how they die, what race or ethnicity they are and other key metrics, crucial data is missing. It’s information that could inform policy decisions by public health officials, homeless advocates, federal funders and city leaders — data that could ultimately save lives, they say.
Many cities across the country are starting to track and review these deaths, in partnership with coroners, medical examiners and police. There’s even a multi-city homeless mortality working group that’s developing common standards.
A lack of tracking
Anyone who dies outdoors in Anchorage is typically examined by a pathologist who determines the cause of death. But the State Medical Examiner Office, which conducts autopsies, doesn’t report whether the dead were homeless or not.
No official data appears to exist reporting homeless deaths in Anchorage.
Some are large cities but others are more similar in size to Anchorage, including Cleveland and Reno, according to Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. Erlenbusch writes an annual report on homeless deaths in Sacramento and did the same when he worked for the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, co-authoring a report titled, “Dying without Dignity: Homeless Deaths in Los Angeles County 2000-2007.” The effort aims to memorialize the dead and to catalyze political and community solutions to end homelessness.
Some who work in Anchorage’s homeless services think the city could be doing more to track homeless deaths. The data could spur policy actions that point to potential solutions. At the very least, it would say something about how well the city’s approach to solving homelessness is working.
“That would be a compelling data point,” said David Rittenberg, program director at Brother Francis Shelter, Anchorage’s longtime and historically largest homeless shelter. “It would be a reckoning for the community.”
Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said homeless mortality data would serve as “a critical measure of safety and community well-being.”
Some cities that track outdoor deaths use the information as an advocacy tool to drive policy changes aimed at saving lives.
“It’s not an academic exercise,” Erlenbusch said.
In Sacramento, mortality data revealed that many homeless individuals died along transportation corridors. That spurred outreach workers to target those specific areas and prevent deaths, Erlenbusch said.
The data out of Sacramento also revealed that only 25% of homeless deaths occur in winter, shattering a myth that most deaths happened during cold weather and prompting a change in how emergency shelter funding was allocated, Erlenbusch said.
In some cities, homeless death review panels examine every person’s death case to see if they fit a pattern. Reviewers might notice that a batch of laced drugs might have killed a homeless person, so outreach workers will go to the camp or area where the person died to alert others.
No such panel exists in Anchorage.
Who’s considered homeless?
If a member of the public asks, police in Anchorage will provide a list of outdoor deaths with the name, age, body location and a short description of the circumstances. The list doesn’t specify whether the person was homeless or not. Obtaining outdoor death information is neither a fast nor easy process. The Daily News was able to request 10 case summaries from police per week. Compiling the list of 53 names took several weeks.
Several homeless service providers in Anchorage said they were surprised that police released the death information to the Daily News because it’s not something providers typically get.
National experts on homelessness said the process shouldn’t be so hard. Police, medical examiners, homeless advocates, shelter directors, public health officials and university scholars who study homelessness can and should work together to track the information, said Katherine Cavanaugh, consumer advocate for National Health Care for the Homeless Council. A federal definition of homelessness exists and it’s well documented that over half a million Americans are homeless on a single night.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, people are deemed homeless if they lack a fixed, regular nighttime residence; have a primary nighttime residence consisting of a place not typically used for regular accommodations, such as a car, bus station or campground; are in imminent danger of losing their housing; are fleeing domestic violence and have no place to go; or are an unaccompanied youth, or a family with children, with housing instability for a defined period of time.
The U.S. Department of Education defines homelessness in broader terms. It deems a child or youth homeless if they lack a regular nighttime residence, if they are migratory, or if they are living in a shelter or a place that isn’t intended as a regular sleeping space for humans.
Some Anchorage residents are obviously homeless. They panhandle, live in tents along greenbelts or stay at shelters. Some people experiencing homelessness are harder to spot. They may work minimum wage jobs and rent a room for a few nights at low-budget motels like the Black Angus Inn or the Mush Inn. Or they double up with a friend, or live in an RV or car.
Some people move in and out of homelessness depending on the shifting circumstances of their lives.
But given the federal definitions of homelessness and how money is allocated accordingly, how hard is it for a pathologist to tell if someone was homeless or not at the time of their death, and how do they do it?
The process might start with a search of law enforcement fingerprint databases and hospital records. Once the person’s ID has been established, the name can be cross-referenced with the homeless management information system, software that is used to collect data on clients who access homeless services. Groups that receive federal funding from the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs are required to collect such data using the system known as HMIS.
It’s really not that difficult to find out if someone who died outdoors was homeless or not, and it’s something that medical examiners and coroner’s offices should be required to do, said Erlenbusch, in Sacramento.
A window into Anchorage’s outdoor deaths
While it’s hard to know how many of the 53 people who have died outdoors in Anchorage since 2017 were homeless, the limited information about them does open a window into who they were.
Half of the dead were 50 or older. Nearly a third were women. Many appear to have been Alaska Natives.
The average age of a homeless person to die in the United States is 50, about 28 years younger than the normal life expectancy. In Sacramento in 2018, the average age among homeless individuals who died was 43 for women and 51.9 for men, according to that city’s coalition to end homelessness.
From social media accounts, news articles, address searches and contacts with family members, many of the people who died outdoors in Anchorage appear to have been homeless. But again, with no one tracking it, it’s hard to say for certain.
“We cannot delineate data by housing status,” said Farr, Alaska’s health analytics and vital records chief.
There’s also scant demographic information that’s publicly available or otherwise. The state medical examiner does not determine or track race, said Stephen J. Hoage, an investigator and manager with the medical examiner’s office.
An analysis of the 53 names seems to correlate with at least one aspect of a recent report from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness that shows Alaska Natives are vastly overrepresented among the ranks of the homeless.
In its July report, the coalition found that Alaska Native residents constitute nearly half of the city’s homeless population and more than 75% of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Census data indicates Alaska Natives make up just over 9% of Anchorage’s population.
William Peacock Jr. was the most recent person to have died outdoors. On Aug. 27, someone found him in the woods in the 2500 block of East Tudor Road, just east of Lake Otis Parkway. Police arrived at 8:50 a.m. and pronounced him dead at the scene. They found nothing suspicious.
The body of Joe Mukluk, 80, turned up nine days earlier. On the morning of Aug. 16, police responded to a call from the 500 block of West Fourth Avenue downtown, where Mukluk was found lying outside on a staircase. Whoever found him started CPR until officers arrived and took over. He was declared dead at the scene.
Joyce Fredericks, 64, was found on June 26 lying in the woods in the 2800 block of the Seward Highway near West Northern Lights Boulevard, a popular area for people who panhandle on a busy corner nearby. Officers performed CPR. Fredericks was declared dead at the scene. Officers concluded there was nothing suspicious.
Charlie Mute was the first person to die outdoors in Anchorage this year. Officers responded at 4:12 a.m. on Jan. 17 to reports of a man lying in a snowbank in the 100 block of East Third Avenue, near A Street downtown. As with Fredericks, officers attempted life-saving measures that came too late. They pronounced Mute, 53, dead at the scene.
Three days later, Dane Whitmore, 52, died inside a parked vehicle on the 3500 block of East 42nd Avenue. Again, nothing suspicious.
On Valentine’s Day, police found Mary Tom, 68, lying in a snowbank outside the Anchorage jail. Tom had not been homeless for 10 years although many people thought she was, said Annie Patrick-Tom, her daughter-in-law. Tom lived in Mountain View with her longtime partner and was on her way to visit her grandchildren with gifts when she died.
“She was in the funeral home for a week without her family being notified until someone had seen her name on the obituary. We were looking for her the whole time she was missing,” Patrick-Tom said.
Homelessness and Anchorage women
Elizabeth Black, 35, died outside the Loussac Library on April 19, 2019. After investigating, police found nothing criminal about Black’s death.
Christine Denton said she was friends with Black, and both were homeless. Black had been raped a few days before her death in the vicinity of Bean’s Cafe, Denton said.
Black reported the alleged crime and was given a sexual assault forensic exam, according to Denton.
Denton said she and other homeless people who knew Black believe the woman was killed because she reported the alleged attack.
A police spokesman would not confirm whether Black had been raped. According to police procedures, authorities would only release that information if they were looking for a suspect or if an arrest was made.
Sexual assault against homeless women is common. Around 80% to 90% of the women who seek homeless services in Anchorage report being survivors of sexual assault, said Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe.
Alaska has one of the highest rates of homelessness among women, second only to Maine, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Some 37% of Alaska’s homeless population are women while the national average is 29%, statistics from the coalition found.
Why do they die?
According to the medical examiner’s office, people who die outdoors in Anchorage die for all of the same reasons other people do, including natural causes. Drugs, alcohol, traumatic injuries and hypothermia are also common themes.
“We also have individuals found outdoors as the result of both homicides and suicides,” Hoage said.
While homeless individuals die from the same causes as the general population, they experience these illnesses at rates three to six times higher, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
Anchorage’s cold weather can make conditions for an unsheltered homeless person particularly deadly. A rash of homeless deaths — 16 between spring 2009 and winter 2010 — prompted the city to launch an emergency cold weather shelter program in 2010. It involved using churches and floor space at Bean’s Cafe soup kitchen to accommodate homeless residents seeking a warm place to spend the night. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan Arena is serving as a mass shelter and the city is stepping up efforts to rapidly house homeless residents in apartments and hotel rooms.
In years past, outdoor deaths in Anchorage sparked more attention than they do now. Anchorage’s police department would issue a public statement when a body was found outdoors, often triggering news coverage. That practice fell away, and nowadays, a notice only goes out if a death is considered suspicious or if it’s a homicide.
It’s unclear why police stopped notifying the public about outdoor deaths. The change occurred before 2017, which is when the Anchorage police department hired MJ Thim as its communications director, Thim said.
Thim said he wasn’t sure why the practice changed because it pre-dated him.
‘We should be tracking that’
Although at least $32 million is spent annually by various entities trying to deal with homelessness in Anchorage, according to research by the Anchorage Homeless Leadership Council, the lack of mortality data about people experiencing homelessness is problematic to service providers.
“We should be tracking that,” said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services.
Catholic Social Services is a nonprofit that operates Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House, St. Francis Food Pantry and other services to help individuals move beyond homelessness. Aquino is also on the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness’ advisory council.
Aquino said she has pushed unsuccessfully for outdoor death statistics to be available so the city and providers can measure how well they are doing, or not, in solving Anchorage’s homeless problem.
“It is important to track and look at each person who dies like this. In our community we should be looking out for each other. Each of these deaths is a person who was a part of our community and we need to remember them and look at our systems to make sure they are working well to serve all people,” she said.
Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, agrees.
“In my opinion, anyone dying outside is unacceptable. It’s a failure of our system because those things are preventable, whether they are homeless or not. To live in Alaska and have people fall asleep and pass away outside? Not acceptable,” Boyle said.
Besides death information, she would also like ready access to crime statistics related to the homeless population, both as perpetrators and victims. Many of the people the coalition serves have suffered “shocking” levels of violence, according to Boyle.
Violent deaths are not uncommon among people experiencing homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless documented 1,769 acts of violence against homeless individuals between 1999-2017. The reported acts were committed by housed perpetrators, the study found. Of the total number of victims, 476 lost their lives. But violence against the homeless is thought to be extremely underreported.
Homeless mortality and crime information would be useful to help execute and evaluate the public health and safety aspects of Anchored Home, the city’s strategic plan for ending homelessness in Anchorage, Boyle said.
Until recently, Boyle said her requests have received “no traction.”
But changes may be afoot. The Anchorage Health Department is hiring new staff to focus on the city’s homeless crisis to make sure policy goals are met, said Nancy Burke, the mayor’s housing and homeless services coordinator.
Burke said she’s interested in getting a system in place to track the deaths and was pursuing it last March just before the pandemic hit. It might be a project the new Health Department staff could take on, she said. Besides the medical examiner, Burke would also like to see hospitals categorize homeless deaths so that data can be captured too.
Homeless is a medical condition under the International Classification of Diseases, the diagnostic manual that doctors use, Burke notes. It’s a billable code.
Part of a continuing series. Do you have a question or story idea about Anchorage homelessness. Use this form.