Homeless deaths soar in King County; meth use on the rise

KING COUNTY, Wash. — King County has seen a 115 percent increase in deaths within the homeless population since 2012. That includes a 23 percent jump last year, according to new report by the medical examiner's office.

The rise in deaths — from 132 in 2016 to 169 last year — coupled with the sharp uptick in methamphetamine showing up in the post-death toxicology reports, has local health officials combing the data for answers.

“I think the biggest surprise was the drastic number of people with methamphetamine in their systems,” said Brad Finegood, the county’s chief health integration strategist. “We know that more people are using multiple drugs.”

Health officials said the rise in the number of homeless deaths likely is linked, at least in part, to the overall increase in the homeless population. While the percentage of drug-caused deaths linked to opiates has held steady between 70 and 80 percent, the increase in the number of deceased with methamphetamine in their systems has jumped to 63 percent, up from 18 percent six years prior.

“It’s not just people dying solely of opiates,” Finegood said.

The report showed that the leading cause of death changes based on the age of the deceased. While homeless people 65 years and older mostly (61 percent) die from what the medical examiner’s office calls “natural causes,” younger deaths skew more toward suicide (30 percent), homicide (19 percent) and lethal amounts of drugs (15 percent).

Finegood said while the problem’s root causes might not always be clear, he believes the solutions are: Get homeless people into housing then into treatment.

“Housing is health care,” he said. “We know that works. People who are housed are going to do better. ”

Over the past six years, 30 percent of all homeless deaths are due to drug overdoses, the data showed. Health officials hope to curb the opiate portion of that with the wider distribution of Naloxone. Beyond that, Finegood said, the county must find better ways to reach the most vulnerable homeless.

“We need to do a better job of getting people into treatment.”