A tent at a homeless encampment in Santa Cruz County in 2020.
Tents at a homeless encampment in Santa Cruz County in late summer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

Santa Cruz County homeless deaths hit all-time high in 2020

The number of deaths in the county also went up by about 13% compared to last year, but homeless people died at more than five times the rate of the rest of the county population.

Deaths of homeless people on the streets of Santa Cruz County have hit their highest total in more than two decades, officials revealed Monday in advance of a memorial to remember the lost.

As of Monday, 77 homeless people, or more than one person per week, have died in the county this year. That’s 19 more people than in 2019 and amounts to the highest number in the past 22 years, according to the Homeless Action Partnership, a network of homeless service providers, Santa Cruz County officials and municipal leaders.

“It’s unpalatable the number of homeless people who die compared to people who live inside,” said David Davis, administrative aide at the Homeless Persons Health Project, a county-run free clinic that compiled the statistics. “Homeless people die 23 years younger than the average person. And for formerly homeless people who are housed, they live on average another 10 years than homeless people.”

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Davis said it’s not exactly clear what factors are contributing to the increase in deaths among the estimated 2,100 homeless people in Santa Cruz County, though he noted that the age range where the highest percentage went up is 50 and older. “Aging population is definitely one of them,” he said. “But outside of that, it’s really hard with such a small sample size.”

The number of deaths in the county also went up by about 13% compared to last year, but homeless people died at more than five times the rate of the rest of the county population. One in every 27 homeless people died compared to one in every 144 with a roof over their head.

“Eight people were in a shelter who passed away,” compared to the other 69 who were not sheltered at the time, Davis said.

Davis noted that his team did not see anyone “who directly passed away from COVID-19 in the homeless population.” The “most likely primary factor” leading to the death of a homeless person was undetermined or pending in 34 cases; cardiac disease/failure was listed for 15 deaths; followed by substance use-related issues or overdose at 10.

“When you’re living out in the elements and you have some underlying health issues, I think cardiac/heart issues could be one of the first ones to go,” said Davis, adding that congestive heart failure, or similar issues, can also develop when using substances.

The latest statistics on deaths among homeless people in Santa Cruz County follows a grim trend over the last few years. It has been four years since the number of homeless deaths decreased compared to the previous year, according to documents prepared by the county Health Services Agency and HPHP.

“For each of the past three years, the number of homeless deaths have been the highest number recorded in our county since tracking this data began in 2000,” officials wrote.

Davis said he saw a spike in fatalities in recent weeks, which pushed the total number of deaths past the 73 he originally forecast for the year. “It was pretty consistent up until the last few weeks” when the rate of death went up, he said.

And he still doesn’t have all the data for the rest of the month. “The last few weeks for some reason there were more deaths,” Davis said.

The record-breaking number of deaths among homeless people in Santa Cruz comes despite county efforts to massively expand its sheltering operation this year in response to COVID-19, allowing it to reach more homeless people than ever.

“When I first started looking at these numbers I was stunned by the fact that there were still so many homeless deaths with all these more sheltering options, hotels,” Davis said.