Average age drops below 50 in Santa Cruz County’s homeless deaths

SANTA CRUZ — Reflecting on the nearly 27-year age difference between those who were housed and those unhoused who died in 2022, a local health care administrator probed at potential causes Wednesday morning.

The Vets Hall in downtown Santa Cruz is filled during the 24th annual Santa Cruz County Homeless Memorial on Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“The social determinants of health, they could be racism, intimate partner violence, just the stress of day-to-day going to work, food insecurity,” Homeless Persons’ Health Project clinic manager Joey Crottogini told more than 120 people gathered at the Veterans Memorial Building. “So, when you add all of these things up and it happens repeated, repeatedly, repeatedly, exposed to that, we call that complex trauma. This is something that people experiencing homelessness face on a day-to-day basis.”

Over years spent on the streets, those cumulative stresses “have a profound impact on somebody’s health,” Crottogini said.

Joining similar efforts across the country, community members had gathered on the shortest day of the year to remember and celebrate the lives of homeless people, along with those who had previously spent time without housing, who had died in 2022. Santa Cruz County’s annual Homeless Memorial, by some estimates in its 24th year, returned for the first time in three years to an in-person event locally, after two years of virtual remembrances designed for health safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

An American flag hangs over those gathered to mourn the 91 known unhoused people who died in Santa Cruz County in 2022. (Shmuel Thaler -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)
An American flag hangs over those gathered to mourn the 91 known unhoused people who died in Santa Cruz County in 2022. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

According to the best estimates of data gathered by the Homeless Persons Health Project staff members, some 91 individuals died while experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County in the past year. The 91 deaths recorded as of Dec. 5, said Homeless Persons Health Project analyst David Davis, was down from approximately 95 in 2021. Hinted at by the Narcan opioid overdose antidote boxes piled free for the taking next to the memorial’s spread of muffins and bottles of water, the year’s largest factor in homeless death was listed as accidental overdoses. At 26 deaths, accidental overdoses accounted for nearly 29% of the 2022 deaths, just ahead of the 25 “data pending” deaths, according to the clinic’s annual report.

This year’s tally amounts to a rate 5.6 times higher than their housed counterparts, according to a report by the clinic. This year, for the first time in 15 years, the average age of death among those experiencing homelessness dipped below 50 to 49 years of age, Davis said.

“If housed people passed away at the same rate as those experiencing homelessness, over 11,000 housed people would have died this year, instead of 1,900,” Davis said. “The disparity between housed and homeless deaths continues.”

During his years working in the profession, Crottogini said he realized that he was unlikely to be behind grand, sweeping system changes. Instead, he would need to support change on a smaller level.

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