In the past five years, at least 17 people believed to be homeless have died of hypothermia on the streets of Anchorage, according to data from the medical examiner and police.
All told, at least 74 people have died in what police call “outdoor deaths” since the beginning of 2017. Among the recent deaths: A 68-year-old man was discovered slumped at a bus stop on Northern Lights Boulevard in January. In March, a 39-year-old woman, not wearing enough clothing for the frigid weather, was found dead alongside the rushing traffic of Minnesota Drive. In July, a 54-year-old died inside a tent hidden in a Mountain View forest.
But no local government entity or organization has in recent years tracked or compiled causes of death for people believed to be homeless who perish on the streets of Anchorage. So there has been no way for the public or policymakers to know what they died of — or how future deaths might be prevented.
“It’s vital information and basic information,” said John Morris, the city’s homeless coordinator and an Anchorage physician.
The Daily News obtained incident records from the Anchorage Police Department, compiling a list of people who have died from 2017 until now in “outdoor deaths.” Using the list, the Alaska State Medical Examiner’s office then shared causes of death for the 74 people. To protect privacy, the data was not attached to specific names.
The analysis offers the first recent detailed look into what caused the deaths of 74 unhoused people in Anchorage. The top causes: cold weather, alcoholism and addiction.
The deaths are “staggering and tragic,” said Morris.
Since January 2017:
• 17 people died of hypothermia.
• 15 people died of complications of chronic alcoholism.
• 14 people died of drug overdoses.
• 10 people died of acute alcohol intoxication.
• Seven people died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
• Four people died of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
• Two people died of other cardiac diseases.
• One person died of infection.
• One person died of trauma.
• One person’s cause of death was pending.
• Two people’s causes of death couldn’t be determined by the medical examiner.
Social service providers say the information is crucial to making informed decisions about how best to spend money in an effort to shelter people experiencing homelessness in Alaska’s biggest city.
[Earlier coverage: As Anchorage struggles with homelessness, outdoor deaths occur regularly — but with little public notice]
The data doesn’t capture every death of a person experiencing homelessness in Anchorage — for example, people who die in hospitals, or vehicle collisions, or homicides. And because being housed or unhoused can be a fluid state for people, police won’t go so far as to say each of the people who died was homeless.
What the numbers capture are people who died outdoors in Anchorage and who had no fixed address at the time of their death, according to the Anchorage Police Department. These are exactly some of the deaths Anchorage’s support system for people experiencing homelessness, including the Anchorage Safety Patrol and emergency shelters, are designed to prevent.
“It is unacceptable in this day and age that people are passing away due to the cold,” said Jasmine Boyle, the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
[Anchorage pedestrians have been more likely to be killed by vehicles in the last 2 years. Why isn’t clear.]
Medical examiner Gary Zientek said that most of the time, when hypothermia is determined to be the main cause of death, alcohol or other substances are found as a potential contributing factor. The other top causes of death, alcoholism and overdoses, also point to unmet mental health and substance misuse needs, Boyle said.
There’s a “significant intersection” of people with serious physical health issues, like cardiovascular disease, and on the street, she said. That’s an issue the city just received a grant for — to help people with medical problems get off the streets, according to Boyle.
Frostbite and hypothermia are often seen in the hospital among unhoused people, said Morris, the city homeless coordinator and a practicing anesthesiologist. Knowing what is causing deaths on the street is key to figuring out where to allocate resources.
“It shows the part we need to target first: safety,” he said.
To have 17 or more people die of the cold in Anchorage, “it’s an absolute failure,” Morris said. “And we need to fix it right now.”