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A record year for homeless deaths in King County — again

caption: Volunteers hold vigil for unhoused people who died in King County this year outside Seattle City Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.
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Volunteers hold vigil for unhoused people who died in King County this year outside Seattle City Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.
KUOW Photo/ Casey Martin

2022 marked another grim year for people in Seattle and King County experiencing homelessness. More than 270 people died this year in the county without secure housing —the highest number in 20 years.

Their ages range from 2 to 80.

They died in tents, RVs, beneath bridges, and inside parking garages.

Zackary Morris was 31 when he died in April in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. His family wrote online that Morris, “had a heart of gold and when we tried giving him clothes or blankets, he would give them away to another homeless person.”

Treasa Sides died in March at age 63. Every December, Sides used to attend the vigil downtown where peoples' names are read aloud. This year her name was read into the cold night air along with 270 others who died in the county this year without stable housing.

The vigil is held outside Seattle City hall each year on the Winter Solstice, Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. Volunteers read every person’s name followed by, “We remember you.”

In 20 years of holding vigils, organizers say 2022 set a new record for unhoused deaths at 270. The record was 178 in 2021. Before that, 139 the year before.

"This is a tragedy that involves us all as citizens, as fellow human beings,” said the Rev. Pat Simpson, one of the organizers of the vigil.

According to data from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, about half of all homeless deaths this year were due to drug overdose, particularly fentanyl. At least four people were unidentified. Three children were reported dead.

Watching the vigil Wednesday night was Wayne Iverson, who was looking for a place to sleep that night and escape the bitter cold.

“I think it’s important they’re doing it,” Iverson said, pointing a cigarette at the vigil, “but I don’t think it’s going to change anything.”

The 67-year-old had just walked from the nearby Salvation Army where he had hoped to get a bed for the night. But Iverson was told that the shelter was full and he should go to City Hall. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority had just announced City Hall would open overnight with room for 70 people.

Housing advocates and WHEEL, the nonprofit group that hosts the vigil, say elected officials should do more to get unhoused people out of the cold.

This year in King County, at least 13 people died from hypothermia or exposure to the cold while experiencing homelessness, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. Four of those deaths happened in December.

In a statement, WHEEL said that severe weather shelters, like the one at City Hall, should remain open all winter long to prevent more deaths.

After waiting more than an hour in the icy cold, Iverson was let into City Hall to sleep for the night. His stay would be short, however. The severe weather shelter, like most around Seattle, closed early in the morning when temperatures were still in the teens. People have to find a new place to stay warm during the day.

Iverson said he would head back to the Salvation Army in hopes of securing a bed for more than one night. He’s too cold and tired to keep moving around from shelter to shelter, he said.

As he passed the vigil group to go into City Hall, Iverson put out his cigarette and pointed to a printed list of names of people who died this year.

“Just trying to stay off next year’s list, I guess,” he said.

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