As many as 500 homeless people died in Phoenix area in first half of 2022

By Nina Lakhani

As many as 500 homeless people died in and around Phoenix, Arizona, during the first half of 2022, with almost 10% of deaths due to homicide, according to new figures from the county medical examiner’s office.

The number of unsheltered people in Maricopa county, which includes the state capital Phoenix, has at least tripled since 2016.

Drugs played a role in the majority of the deaths in which the medical examiner was able to determine the cause. In one case, a 26-year-old Black male partying with friends died after taking opiates, cocaine and benzodiazepines. In another case, a 32-year-old Indigenous woman died from a fentanyl overdose.

African Americans and Indigenous people disproportionately experience homelessness in Maricopa county, and are overrepresented in the death toll.

So far this year, paramedics and police have responded to about 800 suspected overdoses every month across the state, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl – which is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin or morphine – involved in 96% of all drug deaths.

The Department of Justice is investigating the police department over the excessive use of force, discriminatory policing and inappropriate treatment of homeless people among other allegations.

Phoenix is the hottest city in the US and has the highest number of heat related deaths. Heat deaths are preventable, but being outside without adequate shade and water increases the risk of medical complications, toxic drug complications and deadly heat exposure.

Last year unsheltered people accounted for 40% of the county’s 339 heat deaths, but advocates fear that this could rise significantly as this year there are far more people sleeping rough – in parks, near the rail tracks, on sidewalks, behind dumpsters, in parking lots and along the canals.

Phoenix, one of the country’s fastest growing cities, has the highest rate of inflation (12.3%) of any large city in the US, with the cost of housing being a key driver. An investigation by the Guardian published in June found people from across the US living on the streets in Phoenix, with many unable to find affordable housing which is increasingly scarce.

People experiencing homelessness have an average life expectancy of about 50 years of age, almost 20 years lower than housed populations, in large part due to a greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse, according to the CDC.

At least 21 people experiencing homelessness die every day in the US, according to one observatory. Almost all are preventable.

Stacey Champion, a local advocate for better heat and housing policies, described the death toll as crushing.

“This is a public health crisis that’s going to continue to get worse as more people, especially seniors, are priced out of housing, as our fentanyl crisis grows more out of hand and until there’s a political sense of urgency to help those who are the most beat down by our broken systems,” she said.

Nationwide, seniors are the fastest growing group in the homeless population, with many finding themselves on the streets for the first time due to unaffordable rents, medical debts, job insecurity and family rifts. More than 160 people who died between January and June were over 55 years old.

Thirteen deaths were recorded as suicides . More than 30 people were hit and killed by cars including a 37-year-old woman who was struck while crossing the road by a vehicle who fled the scene.

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The January to June figures, which were first reported by Axios, include 338 deaths of confirmed transient or homeless people. This compares to 517 deaths for the whole of 2021 and 596 in 2022, according to the medical examiner’s annual reports.

So far this year, another 159 deaths are recorded as unknown, which means the person may or may not have been homeless but will not be included in the examiner’s annual report.


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