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As homeless deaths rise in Chico, who’s keeping track?

The 8th Annual Homeless Memorial Candlelight Vigil on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2021 in Sacramento, Calif. 139 names were read that year, this year it was nearly 200. Sacramento is one of the cities in California that tracks unhoused deaths.
Sarah Mizes-Tan
/
CapRadio

The 8th Annual Homeless Memorial Candlelight Vigil on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2021 in Sacramento, Calif. 139 names were read that year, this year it was nearly 200. Sacramento is one of the cities in California that tracks unhoused deaths.

Chico homeless advocates are concerned about the number of unhoused people dying in the streets and in temporary shelters in the city.

“This is the most we've had in a year,” said community advocate Mary Kay Benson. “I think the most we've ever had before was 22. Now it's 27.”

Benson keeps an informal tally of the deaths. Community advocates say the number is likely higher, but it's hard to tell since there is no official count of people who died while unhoused in Chico.

NSPR checked with the city of Chico, Butte County Department of Public Health and the Butte County Coroner's Office and none keep track of homeless deaths in the area.

But some cities in the state do keep a tally, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

“I think it's irresponsible not to do it,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

Erlenbusch said the coalition has prepared an annual report on homeless deaths in Sacramento County for almost a decade, as well as information like location, ethnicity, age, and cause of death. Data like this informs local policy, he said, and can help direct outreach.

“[Our report] showed that homeless people died along transit corridors,” he said. “So one of the first things the county board of supervisors did was allocate about $750,000 to hire more outreach workers to go out along those transit corridors.”

But without an official list, it can be hard to identify life-threatening issues facing unhoused residents, let alone address them.

A law passed in Oregon in 2022 requires death reports to indicate if a person was unhoused at the time of death. No similar law exists in California.

For the moment in Chico, it’s still up to community advocates to keep a tally of those who died while experiencing homelessness in the city.

Alec Stutson grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Radio Journalism, 20th/21st Century Literature, and a minor in Film Studies. He is a huge podcast junkie, as well as a movie nerd and musician.