Neither Atlanta Nor The State Keeps Track of Homeless Deaths

We know at least eight homeless Atlantans have died in the cold this winter. But is that number worse or better than average for the metro area? Hard to say.

The number of deaths of homeless people is something neither the city nor the state keeps track of regularly. So, of agencies such as the city’s nonprofit manager of homeless services, Continuum of Care; Georgia’s Department of Public Health; and the CDC, none track it.

Official information about the hypothermia deaths is collected by individual medical examiners, but homeless advocates’ keep their own count — and it’s higher.

“We kind of verify who’s passed and who’s not in our own particular ways with the relationships we have with the people we serve,” said Nolan English with Safehouse Outreach, a homeless service provider and kitchen in downtown Atlanta.

His sources say 13 people died outside this year, not counting the last freeze.

“I guess their numbers are catching up,” English said of what he calls “street numbers.”

Every December, Atlanta is one of many cities where service providers hold a joint memorial service for homeless people who’ve died. Mercy Care, a homeless health services provider that organizes the service, told WABE it memorialized 60 deaths last year unofficially, a number that includes causes other than hypothermia.

Megan Hustings is with the National Homeless Coalition, which tries to keep track of how many homeless people die in the country. She said many cities and states generally don’t do a consistent job of it.

“Communities across the country don’t really look into the deaths of folks who don’t have a readily available address or family available. Those folks, a lot of the time, a lot of the time remain anonymous,” Hustings said, adding that homelessness itself is a fluid and extremely difficult thing to track accurately.

The coalition estimates 700 unsheltered people pass away from hypothermia each year nationally, while the range of estimated total deaths is anywhere from 3,000 to 13,000. Hustings said her group expects to put out a report on 2016 fatalities in coming weeks. She believes many state and local governments should be more active in keeping records on homeless deaths.

“If we don’t care enough about people while they’re alive, then I suppose we don’t really care enough about them after they’ve passed away to really understand why we lost them and what we can do to prevent more deaths,” she said.

The combination of the extreme cold and the controversial closure of the city’s massive Peachtree and Pine shelter have drawn attention to people dying in the cold this year. But, said George Chidi, with Central Atlanta Progress, “Our attention span for this sort of thing, we’re like gnats.”

“To be perfectly blunt I think the system has been negligent over a period of years and years,” Chidi said.

He’s one of many, including WABE, waiting on requests for historical data from the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office to compare to this year’s numbers to. Chidi said he’s particularly interested in comparing this year with comparably extreme winters in 2010 and 2014.

He said it’s looking like alcoholism may have been a contributing factor in many of the hypothermia deaths.

“This is a long term public health problem, and the chronic problem, where you want the most return on your investment to reduce deaths, it’s to reduce substance abuse disorder,” said Chidi.

These deaths aren’t about the shelter system, he said.