More than 70 people experiencing homelessness have died outside in Anchorage in the last four years.
That’s according to reporting by the Anchorage Daily News, which found that the majority of outdoor deaths were from hypothermia, complications of chronic alcoholism or drug overdoses.
ADN reporter Michelle Theriault Boots says the deaths have gone mostly unnoticed by Anchorage residents in recent years.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michelle Theriault Boots: We knew that outdoor deaths were happening. My colleague Paula Dobbyn had done some reporting on that, just about how quietly they continue to happen, year in and year out, without really the public knowing much about them. But what we hadn’t known — and also policymakers and the nonprofit world, service providers, hadn’t known — is exactly what people were dying of.
Casey Grove: Some of us will remember in the past, an outdoor death like this would trigger like a press release from the police department. And that’s no longer the case, right?
Michelle Theriault Boots: Right. You know, back in 2009, 2010, there was a really highly-publicized series of outdoor deaths — that was kind of a turning point for the community. They received high levels of media coverage. There were, you know, community meetings about them, even some action — changes in how cold weather shelter was provided, because people were learning about and hearing about homeless people dying outside on the streets. And Anchorage found that intolerable. And then no one seems to really quite know why, but the practice of publicly reporting those outdoor deaths just kind of fell away. And so it’s been a very unknown, under-known phenomenon.
Casey Grove: There were a few different steps that you had to go through to kind of get this information. Could you describe that?
Michelle Theriault Boots: So what I had from the combinations of our efforts was a list of 74 names from 2017 until now, and I had a short narrative of each death — where the person was found, whether anything suspicious was found, any other, you know, major details, and the person’s name and age.
And the real question I had was, “Well, what are these folks dying from? And could these deaths have been prevented?”
And then I was, by chance, having a conversation with our Alaska State Medical Examiner, Dr. Gary Zientek, about something completely different. And he said, “Well, you know, how many names do you have?” And I said, “Well, 74.” And he said, “If you send me those names, that’s a large enough number that I can send you back an aggregate of the causes of death without identifying specific people.”
So after a couple days, he got back to me with that data. And for the first time in a while we had a much clearer picture of what the causes of death are for unhoused people who die on the street.
Casey Grove: Yeah, so let’s talk about that. I’m looking at the graphic that Kevin Powell put together at the Anchorage Daily News, and there’s, you know, certainly drug overdoses and complications involving alcoholism close to the top of the list, but the most deaths were caused by hypothermia, just being outside in the cold, right?
Michelle Theriault Boots: Yeah, And I think that’s both a shocking and not surprising number. I mean, I think it’s tragic and shocking. And though, you know, we do live in a sub-Arctic climate where we all know that the harsh winter is a major danger, I think what’s so surprising about that is there is a perception among some people that we have systems in place to keep this from happening. And I think that people are shocked by that number — that 17 people have died of the cold on the streets of Anchorage in the last five years, because I think we’d like to think we’re better than that, as a community, that we have somehow solved that or put systems in place to keep that from happening. And what this shows is that: No, we haven’t solved that, people are still dying of hypothermia on the streets of Anchorage every year.
Casey Grove: So with the social services folks that work with people experiencing homelessness, what did they say about this, other than it’s tragic that folks would die of hypothermia out in the cold? Do they say that this is useful? That they might have practical applications for using this information?
Michelle Theriault Boots: The feedback I’ve heard is that policymakers are really glad to know this. But I think it also just points to a much more complex problem, right? So hypothermia deaths, the medical examiner said alcohol contributes to almost all of those. We also have complications of chronic alcoholism, drug overdoses, acute alcohol intoxication as the top four causes of death, which really points to a need to address addiction and substance misuse as an urgent priority, it seems like.
Casey Grove: On a personal level, what’s it like to read these narratives of each of these people’s deaths?
Michelle Theriault Boots: It’s really heartbreaking. And I think one element is just how familiar and public the places that people have died are. I drive down one section of Minnesota Drive three or four times a week, and right there, a woman about my age died right there on the sidewalk this year, and it’s just, I think knowing more about these deaths, you have to see the city in a different way.