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Oregon to require medical examiners note when someone dies while homeless

(Mail Tribune file photo) -- Homeless camp along Bear Creek between Highland Dr and Barnett Rd in Medford.

In January, Eugene community members gathered to mourn the death of at least 30 unhoused neighbors over the past year.

But no one knows the total count — Lane County has no system for counting how many people die while homeless. The only county in the state of Oregon that does is Multnomah.

But, starting Jan. 1, 2022, the state of Oregon will require medical examiners to include whether a person who died was experiencing homelessness in their report. The hope is that this process will help lawmakers and advocates understand the scope of the sometimes deadly impacts of homelessness.

Senate Bill 850's chief sponsors were Rep. Wlnsvey Campos (D-28) and Sen. Deb Patterson​ (D-10); however, it also saw support from Lane County legislators Sen. James I. Manning Jr. (D-7) and Rep. Mary Wilde (D-11), who were both regular sponsors of the bill. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill on July 23.

“Domicile Unknown” is the name of Multnomah County’s yearly report on people who died while homeless. The project began when leadership from Street Roots, a Portland-based homeless advocacy newspaper, put pressure on their county’s leadership to begin tracking the deaths that often are invisible to the public eye.

Since December 2010, Multnomah County deputy medical examiners have noted which people may have been homeless at the time of death. Deputy medical examiners make multiple attempts to identify the residence of people who died, through scene investigation and interviews with family and friends.

The total is likely an undercount, but even an imperfect number gives the county an idea of what risks are posed to those who live on the streets.