How Many Homeless Have Died From Hypothermia in Denver?

During Westword's reporting on homelessness, we've attended Denver City Council meetings and other gatherings where people have thrown out numbers regarding the homeless dying from exposure to cold weather (medically known as "environmental exposure" or hypothermia) as wide-ranging as twelve deaths per year to 800 deaths per year in Denver County.

The city has maintained that it has shelter space for everyone who needs it and that during emergencies, like large winter storms, it opens up recreation centers to accommodate extra demand.

Some people experiencing homelessness elect not to use shelters for a variety of personal reasons, however. And according to critics of the city's urban-camping ban, these are the individuals who are being put into life-threatening situations by police enforcement of the ordinance.

But how many homeless people have really died on the streets specifically because of the elements?

Westword made a request to the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner to find out.

According to Steven Castro, the operations supervisor and custodian of records,  there have been eight homeless individuals who have died of hypothermia since February 2015. The most recent death was in April 2016.

But Castro also says that it can take inspectors up to two months to determine if a body belongs to someone who is deemed "homeless" — that is, without a permanent place of residence at the time of their passing.

That means that there could be additional homeless individuals who have died within the last sixty days.

As for the eight confirmed individuals, each was found to have succumbed (at least partially) to cold weather.

Westword was provided with autopsy reports for the individuals, with which the following observations can be made:
  • All are males between the ages of thirty and sixty.
  • Most were found in dense, urban areas of Denver.
  • None of the individuals was reported to have a tent.
  • All showed some level of intoxication from alcohol and/or drugs.
  • Most appear to have been alone at the time of death.
There are some disturbing facts in some of the reports. In one, the deceased — Robert Johansen — was kicked repeatedly by someone at a bus stop hours before the body was reported. According to the report:
"A Regional Transportation District (RTD) video camera in the area showed the decedent being kicked numerous times by an unknown individual while he was laying on a bus stop bench late in the evening."
Another individual, Cary McSorley, was found pinned underneath a chain-link fence in February 2016. He was thirty.

Below, we've included excerpts from each of the autopsy reports. They are illuminating in terms of how and where deaths have occurred during the past two years.

Out of respect for the deceased, however, Westword has redacted most of the medical-examination details. We also rearranged the structure of the reports to prioritize the circumstances of death — where and how the deceased were found — as well as the primary findings of the medical examiner.

They are included below in chronological order:

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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker