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Three people dead due to exposure, amplifying concerns for homeless population

Will James
A sanctioned tent city in downtown Olympia on Monday, February 11, 2019.

At least three people have died of exposure in the week since an unusual pattern of winter weather began battering Western Washington.

On Monday, officials pointed to exposure deaths as a sign of the dire situation facing the region's homeless population.

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed two deaths Monday afternoon. Carl Soderberg, 53, died in Maple Valley on Saturday and Stanley Little, 84, died in Fall City on Thursday. Both died of hypothermia. Both men had home addresses and were likely not homeless, said James Apa, a spokesman for Public Health Seattle and King County.

Another death was confirmed last week. Derek C. Johnson, 59, died Thursday of hypothermia in Seattle, the medical examiner’s office said. Officials believe he was homeless, Apa said. 

A fourth person may have died of exposure over the weekend, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said at a news conference Monday. The 37-year-old woman was found in a cold house in Capitol Hill just after midnight Sunday, but it's not clear whether the temperature caused her death, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle police. 

A fifth possible case is under investigation in Tacoma, where police found a 35-year-old man dead Sunday outside a Chase Bank on Sixth Avenue on Sunday. The man was known to have struggled with alcohol addiction and was found with a bottle beside him, but may have died of exposure, said police spokeswoman Loretta Cool. The medical examiner’s office is working to determine the cause of death, she said.

As of Monday afternoon, no other weather-related deaths were known in King, Pierce, Snohomish or Thurston counties, according to local medical examiners’ offices. 

However, more deaths could come to light as cases are closed. Medical examiners' offices typically only release the results of completed investigations, and it can take weeks to determine whether someone died of exposure or some other cause.

The four rounds of snowfall over the past week, including heavy snow Monday afternoon, have posed a particular danger to the thousands of people who live in tents, under tarps, and in doorways across Western Washington.

Cities, counties and nonprofits have laid down extra mats in shelters and made efforts to reach out to unsheltered people since the weather pattern began.

Durkan said Seattle’s “navigation team,” which does outreach with the homeless population, performed a second round of checks on unsheltered people Monday. The team performed an initial round last week.

"A number of these tents are not built for this weather," Durkan said. "Snow accumulates. We’ve been very careful in our outreach not to enter into tents, so we want to go back through to make sure the people who chose to remain outside and in tents are safe."

Many people have chosen to stick out the weather in their tents because they don’t want to leave belongings or friends behind, or they find shelters uncomfortable.

"Home is where you make it, and I like my home," said Jessica Tester, 33, who lives in a sanctioned tent city in downtown Olympia. "Whether it’s wet, whether it’s snowy, whether it’s hot, whether it’s dirty, it’s mine."

She said she has reinforced her tent with extra poles so it doesn’t collapse under the weight of the snow. 

But Tester said the situation has grown worrisome for some of her neighbors, and she plans to check on them.

"People’s heart rates are slow, people have coughs, people can’t breathe," she said. "It’s hard on some people out here. And if I can help it, I’m going to make it a lot better if I can."

In the midst of Monday's news surrounding the exposure deaths, Gov. Jay Inslee once more put pressure on lawmakers to raise taxes on the state's wealthiest residents.

"When I talk to legislators, I’m going to remind them of that," Inslee said at a news conference Monday. "That when a state that has these enormous pockets of wealth, to have a system where we can take care of homeless people and they’re not dying of exposure, I hope that’s a lesson we take from this snowstorm this year."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.