Our Frozen Dead: Hypothermic ‘Domicile Unknown’ Deaths

A growing number of deaths the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office investigates are among people experiencing homelessness.

Matthew Gardipee, aka “Little Bear,” prepares to move his camp near the confluence of the Springwater Corridor and the I-205 Multiuse Path in Southeast Portland. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

“I think he froze to death,” Gardipee said.

It’s not clear whether or not that’s true. Jensen’s death would likely have been classified as “domicile unknown,” but there could have been other factors involved. Multnomah County Health Department and county medical examiners don’t typically release any information about, or comment on, specific domicile unknown deaths.

Matthew Gardipee, aka “Little Bear,” near the confluence of the Springwater Corridor and I-205 Multiuse Path. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Part II: A third of recent homeless hypothermia deaths happened when severe weather shelters were not open. Homeless advocates are looking for ways to prevent these tragedies.

Ted Wheeler officially became mayor of Portland on January 1, 2017 — the same day as the first of six hypothermia deaths in Multnomah County in 17 days.

In other words, fully one-third of those who froze to death died when severe weather shelters weren’t open.

And the city-county joint office only contracts with Transitions Projects from Nov. 1-March 31 each year. Two of the nine deaths from last fell outside that period.

“You wouldn’t expect to see a hypothermia death four days after summer,” Theriault said.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran notes that the tragedy of homeless people freezing to death is unfortunately “a challenge all major cities have been struggling with.”

  • People who “aren’t functioning well and able to make good decisions about whether to access shelter, whether that’s because of hypothermia, because they’re intoxicated or experiencing a mental health crisis.”
  • People living outside “because they aren’t comfortable in large shelters, who are sometimes not prepared for the most extreme cold weather.”
  • People “we don’t even know are out there, because they’re so isolated and off the grid.”

“As long as involuntary commitment = Oregon State Hospital in our state (which is the current status quo), additional civil commitments alone will not solve the problem, even when people are truly at risk,” Meieran wrote in an email.

It can be hard to know where isolated houseless people are staying as temperatures dip or severe weather systems approach.

“This gets into weird, crazy dynamics,” Bayer said. “Some advocates are like, ‘Hey, don’t call the police,’ but if you need a welfare check, you need a welfare check.”

Key health barriers are also often part of the picture when someone dies of the cold. Bayer says more support for those struggling with addiction could make a difference.

  • Temperatures forecast at 25 degrees F or below
  • Forecasts predict at least an inch of snow in most areas
  • Overnight temperatures forecast at 32 degrees F or below, with at least an inch of driving rain
  • Other conditions, including severe wind chills or extreme temperature fluctuations

“I don’t want to sound heartless or anything, but if we look at [changes], would we have to take money from some other program that might also help [homeless people]?” Dr. Gunson asked.

The fight to reduce hypothermia deaths is unfolding on many fronts — which is necessary when tackling a problem that does not have a single solution, officials and advocates say. Supportive housing programs that offer not just shelter, but also services, can be expensive but studies have consistently shown they work.

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Poor for a Minute

We are all poor due to the broken social safety net in the United States, the world’s richest nation. Portfolio, bio, contact: ThacherSchmid.com