Deaths of Those Experiencing Homelessness Increased in 2021 in Metro Denver

A December 21 vigil recognized those who died while experiencing homelessness in Denver in 2021.
A December 21 vigil recognized those who died while experiencing homelessness in Denver in 2021. Courtesy of Cathy Alderman
At least 269 people experiencing homelessness in metro Denver died in 2021, according to data from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless included in its annual "We Will Remember: Homeless Death Review" report.

"Unfortunately, what is happening is there's more people experiencing homelessness than there have been before, so of course there's going to be more of everything within that population," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "I think we're seeing an increase in deaths because it's increasingly more dangerous to be homeless in Denver from a weather perspective, from a crime perspective, from a substance-use perspective."

The 269 total, which Alderman believes is a definite undercount, is up from 222 deaths among people experiencing homelessness in metro Denver in 2020 and 172 in 2019.

"Living outside comes with inherent risks, and we're seeing that in this report, and we've seen that in the last few years of the report," says Alderman.

The Denver Medical Examiner's Office tallied 168 total deaths among people experiencing homelessness within Denver city limits between November 1, 2020, and October 31, 2021, which is up 12 percent from 2020 and 83 percent over the last five years.

Of those 168 deaths, 56 percent had accidental causes, such as drug overdoses and freezing. Another 21 percent were attributable to natural deaths, such as those resulting from disease or aging. People experiencing homelessness are at a much higher risk for developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

"We've got to recognize about people who have experienced chronic homelessness, they often present medically as twenty years older than their biological age. They also have a life expectancy that is thirty years less of someone of their same age who is housed," Alderman says.

In its report, the coalition compared deaths among people experiencing homelessness in 2021 to deaths among those who died while in the organization's housing program. The data showed that "those with access to housing are more likely to die of natural causes and less likely to die as the result of an accident, drugs or alcohol, or blunt force trauma," it concluded.

"We know what things are going to save lives: housing, services, stronger relationships with people who are experiencing homelessness. As a community, let's come together and make these investments. A lot of this is preventable," Alderman says.

In addition to creating the report, on December 21 the coalition held a memorial vigil outside of the Denver City and County Building. For the 32nd year, the event included reading the names of those who were lost on the streets in the past year. The list has become much longer in recent years.

Explains Alderman: "We do it because if we didn't, it's our fear that these people that have passed will be soon forgotten in a similar way that they have been forgotten while they experienced homelessness." 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.