Fentanyl fuels record homeless deaths in Seattle area

SEATTLE — A record 310 homeless people died in the Seattle area last year, highlighting the region’s struggle to house the thousands of people living on its streets.

The 310 deaths in King County surpassed the previous record of 195 homeless deaths set in 2018, the Seattle Times reported, and marked a 65% jump over 2021.

“That’s just appalling,” the paper quoted Chloe Gale, policy and strategy vice president for REACH, the largest homelessness outreach provider in Seattle, as saying.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said it underscores his administration’s urgent need to get more people indoors.

Fentanyl-related overdoses accounted for more than half of the deaths. Many people had a combination of fentanyl and other drugs such as meth or cocaine in their system, the paper reported, citing records from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Eighteen homeless people died by homicide, a number that more than doubled from 2021.

Thirty-five people died from natural causes at a much younger age than is typical. The average age of death for homeless people was 48, the medical examiner found.

Ten people died from hypothermia or exposure, and seven died from suicide.

The county has directed its public health, human services and homelessness agencies to survey homeless providers to find out what is needed to help curb fatal overdoses. The county is also increasing funding for harm-reduction efforts.

Last year, Public Health – Seattle & King County distributed more than 10,000 kits of naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, and about 100,000 fentanyl test strips. The agency is leading public awareness campaigns about the synthetic opioid and helping people find treatment.

Fentanyl has been driving overdose fatalities in the county more broadly, regardless of people’s housing status. As of November, it was involved in 70% of all confirmed overdose deaths in the county in 2022, according to a recent report by Public Health – Seattle & King County.

Brad Finegood, who leads the agency’s opioid and overdose response, said researchers keep watching the monthly overdose numbers, hoping to see rates flatten out.

“Maybe we’re plateauing at a really bad rate and maybe it’s going to get worse,” Finegood said. “I don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

The point-in-time count conducted in the county last year found that 13,368 people were living outside.