In April, eight people believed to be homeless died outdoors in Anchorage.
That’s the highest number of outdoor deaths in any single month since the beginning of 2017, when the Daily News began tracking such deaths based on incident reports provided by the Anchorage Police Department.
An outdoor death is defined by Anchorage police as a person found dead outside in Anchorage who had no fixed address at the time they died.
The data falls short of capturing the death of every person experiencing homelessness because it doesn’t include those who die in hospitals, of homicides or elsewhere, such as hotel rooms or shelters. And in the past police have stopped short of calling every person on the list “homeless” because housing status can change quickly and not every person who dies outdoors is homeless. Some other municipalities track outdoor deaths as a public health measure; Anchorage has not.
What the data shows is a circumstance both unseen and commonplace in Alaska’s biggest city: In April, unhoused people were found dead on a sidewalk, in a ditch, in a sleeping bag tucked in the corner of a parking lot, along the state’s busiest highway.
News of the record number of deaths last month was met with distress from the city’s homeless coordinator. At the time, there were believed to have been six deaths. Two additional deaths were reported later.
“Six is too many,” said Alexis Johnson, the municipal homeless coordinator, on Monday. “I mean, one is too many. But six is just …”
The causes of death for the eight people are not known. None of the deaths was considered suspicious, according to the Anchorage Police Department.
Overall, 13 people had died outside in Anchorage by the end of April, putting the city on pace to exceed last year’s 24 deaths.
Advocates agree that outdoor deaths are an important gauge of the city’s action — or inaction — on homelessness. Shelter’s most basic function is to keep people from dying preventable deaths outside.
“If we look at outdoor deaths, I think it’s a reflection on how we serve our most vulnerable,” said Cathleen McLaughlin, the head of Restorative and Reentry Services, a nonprofit advising the city on homelessness issues.
April’s high number of outdoor deaths came as the city was winding down the Sullivan Arena shelter, which has functioned as the city’s main low-barrier, walk-in emergency shelter since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shelter closed to all but 90 of the most medically fragile residents on May 1, but people had been leaving for weeks, employees said.
On the first day of April, a 40-year-old man was found dead in a wooded camp off Tudor Road. His body was found in a tent. “It was clear the victim had been deceased for some time,” the police incident report said.
Three days later, a 64-year-old man was found dead in a sleeping bag tucked into a business parking lot along the Seward Highway in Midtown.
On April 13, a 54-year-old man was found dead in an abandoned vehicle off Bragaw Street.
Four days later, a 63-year-old man was discovered dead in a ditch near the Glenn Highway and Muldoon Road.
The next day, another man, 64, was found dead inside a car he had been sleeping in.
On April 23, a 45-year-old man was found dead on a sidewalk of Fireweed Lane early on a Sunday morning.
On April 28, police were called to Ship Creek, where a woman was “lying under a bridge and not breathing.” She was declared dead.
Finally, on the last day of April, police were called to the corner of Elmore Road and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, where a man was lying dead next to Campbell Creek.
Historically, data compiled by the Daily News shows that outdoor deaths have not peaked in the coldest winter months when hypothermia is a major risk to being outdoors. During that time, shelter has generally been available, either at Sullivan Arena or Brother Francis Shelter. Spring and fall shoulder seasons, along with peak summer months, have brought higher numbers of outdoor deaths.
More people opt to stay outside during those months, said Johnson, the city homeless coordinator. And there’s less oversight medically in outdoor camps than at an organized shelter.
This year, with no walk-in, low-barrier shelter operating after the Sullivan’s closure, experts have estimated roughly double the number of unhoused people will be living on Anchorage streets.
An analysis of years’ worth of homeless death data in cooperation with the Alaska medical examiner found that hypothermia, the effects of chronic alcoholism and overdoses are among the top causes of death associated with Anchorage outdoor deaths.
At least two of the eight who died in April were known to have stayed at Sullivan Arena or Brother Francis Shelter, McLaughlin said. She’s not sure what to attribute the deaths to. But also in April, troopers warned of an increase in overdoses in the Mat-Su tied to what officials described as a “lethal batch” of drugs likely containing fentanyl. Around the same time, the Anchorage School District also reported an unusual number of overdoses among students, with about half suspected to involve fentanyl. None were fatal.
McLaughlin wondered if there had been a bad batch of drugs circulating around the shelter. For a time, a man was parked in the parking lot selling fentanyl from a camper van, she said.
Johnson said her goal is to see a year-round shelter open.
“I hope that we can join forces with the Assembly to either acquire or build a year-round shelter, so that we can limit or eradicate all outdoor deaths attributed to lack of shelter,” she said. “Any amount of deaths outside … it’s just incomprehensible. We have to do better.”
Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed to this report.