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How tracking unhoused deaths can help fight homelessness

A mural at Equilateral Coffee on Jan. 16, 2024 honoring unhoused residents who died while unsheltered in Chico, Calif.
Alec Stutson
A mural at Equilateral Coffee on Jan. 16, 2024 honoring unhoused residents who died while unsheltered in Chico, Calif.

Community advocates say at least 27 unhoused residents died in the streets or in temporary shelters in Chico last year. It’s impossible to tell exactly how many because no local agency tracks unhoused deaths in the city or Butte County.

Jamie Chang, an associate professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley studying health outcomes of unhoused people, said tracking data on homeless deaths can help reflect the makeup and needs of the unhoused community.

“We're able to essentially get information across all folks who were homeless in a given space,” Chang said. “By looking at that data, it really does give us another way to look at the lives and experiences of homeless individuals.”

In 2022, Oregon passed a law requiring death certificates to mark if the person was unhoused at the time of death. This allows legislators and homeless aid groups to look at demographics and trends in the unhoused community. No similar law exists in California, though some cities in the state do track unhoused deaths.

But Chang said the lack of a standard practice can cause complications.

“That’s the difficult thing is, there's no mandate that cities and counties have to collect and track homeless mortality. And it's not an easy thing to do,” she said. “Different cities and counties collect this data, but oftentimes they use different methods or methodologies to do that.”

Chang said tracking unhoused deaths, including information like the cause of death and the person’s location, can help provide a clearer picture of challenges unhoused residents are facing and help guide local policy to address specific issues.

Click "listen" at the top or bottom of this story to hear an interview with Jamie Chang.

Interview with Jamie Chang

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.