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Oregon begins tracking homeless deaths with new law

Tents line the sidewalk in front of Union Station on Northwest 6th Avenue in Portland, Nov. 9, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB
Tents line the sidewalk in front of Union Station on Northwest 6th Avenue in Portland, Nov. 9, 2021.

For the last decade, only one Oregon county has tracked the deaths of people experiencing homelessness. That’s about to change with a new law that took effect Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 850 requires death reports to indicate if someone was homeless at their time of death, similar to the way Multnomah County has tracked deaths through its “Domicile Unknown” report since 2011.

When compiling a report, state medical examiners would check a box called “domicile unknown” if they determined a person was homeless when they died. The examiner could also report the decedent’s last known address.

The bill passed the Senate 22-to-5 and had zero opponents in the House.

Supporters say tracking this data is crucial in determining how policymakers can
address increasing homelessness numbers in the state. “Imagine trying to solve any problem without basic fundamental information on the nature of that problem,” said Jimmy Jones, executive director of Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action, during testimony in May. “It’s like building a house without a blueprint, or running a race on an unmarked course. For all the millions we spend on homeless and housing issues in Oregon, we know next to nothing about the people who are dying outside.”

Jones, who worked closely with lawmakers on the bill, said the “domicile unknown” box might add additional work for medical examiners compiling death reports, but that would be similar to the research they do to determine other components of the report, such as the decedent’s cause of death or their veteran status.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.