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Spike In Homeless Deaths Alarms Coos County Officials

A woman clutches a stuffed bear at a temporary warming shelter at the Ashland Public Library Tuesday night.
April Ehrlich / JPR
A woman clutches a stuffed bear at a temporary warming shelter at the Ashland Public Library.

Homeless service providers and law enforcement have noticed an alarming increase in the number of homeless people who have died in Coos County so far this year. Eight individuals have died since the beginning of 2021 – more than is typical for an entire year.

“We’ve not ever had eight people die in two months, ever. And I’ve been the director here for five years,” says Tara Johnson, the director of the Devereux Center in Coos Bay, which runs a warming center and provides services like laundry and helps homeless people replace personal documents.

Johnson says around seven unhoused people die on average in the county each year. The sharp increase, which was first reported by the Coos Bay World, is worrying to local law enforcement as well.

“It’s clearly concerning,” says Coos Bay Police Captain Mike Shaffer. There’s been no evidence of foul play in the deaths, according to Shaffer. He says at least two of the deaths occurred by suicide and four more were related to alcohol use and cold weather this winter.

Johnson with the Devereux Center says it’s hard to explain this dramatic increase in deaths. Coos County did not hold a one-night point-in-time count of homeless people this year because of health concerns with the pandemic. But anecdotally she says their services do not indicate a significant increase in the number of unsheltered people living in Coos County.

She also says there have been few cases of COVID-19 in the local homeless population. The Devereux Center screens for symptoms when people use their services.

One possible cause, she says, is an overall decline in mental health.

“I feel like the optimism that people have now versus a year ago is different. People are not as chipper, I guess, would be a good word,” she says. “We’ve had more people with greater mental health issues than previously, so that could indicate an increase in substance use.”

Ironically, a mild winter on the coast has also meant their overnight warming center has been open less often, since the temperature has not dropped below the threshold required to operate by the local city ordinance.

The Devereux Center is in the process of opening a community campground in Coos Bay, based on the a 60-site urban campground in Medford, operated by Rogue Retreat. That could be open by late April or early May. Hopefully, Johnson says, that will reduce the number of people exposed to the elements and provide a path to recovery.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.