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Homeless Deaths Have Doubled In King County Since 2012

Paula Wissel
Tents occupied by people who are homeless in downtown Seattle.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated an incorrect number of deaths of homeless people investigated by the medical examiner. The correct number is 169. We apologize for the error.

Between 2012 and 2018, the number of homeless deaths in King County more than doubled. Last year alone, the King County Medical Examiner investigated 169 deaths of people determined to be homeless.In a report prepared for Public Health Seattle and King County, five years of  deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner were reviewed. It shows homeless people in King County who died were younger and more likely to be Black or Native American than people who died with secure housing.

Drug-related deaths were high, but people who were homeless also died of natural causes at a much younger age.

Brad Finegood, with King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, says the way to lower deaths is to provide drug and medical treatment to people where they are. 

“So, rather than saying, 'If you have opiate-use disorder and you want to get medication for that treatment you have to travel all the way across town,' we’re trying to move to a place where we can help people achieve treatment on demand at a place where they’re already possibly even going,” said Finegood.

Finegood says a recent pilot project that provided drug treatment at a needle exchange site in downtown Seattle is an example of this. He says it was successful enough that it's being expanded.

The initiatives King County is undertaking to provide more services directly to people on the street are partly funded by county sales tax earmarked for mental illness and drug dependency.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.