A person hugs a teddy bear and lies on bedding on a carpeted floor.

A woman clutches a stuffed bear at a temporary warming shelter at the Ashland Public Library.

April Ehrlich / JPR

Homeless service providers and law enforcement have noticed an alarming increase in the number of homeless people who have died in Coos County so far this year. Eight unhoused people have died since the beginning of 2021 – more than is typical for an entire year.

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“We’ve not ever had eight people die in two months, ever. And I’ve been the director here for five years,” said Tara Johnson, the director of the Devereux Center in Coos Bay, which runs a warming center and provides services like laundry and helps homeless people replace personal documents.

Johnson said around seven unhoused people die on average in the county each year. The sharp increase, which was first reported by the Coos Bay World, is worrying to local law enforcement as well.

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“It’s clearly concerning,” said Coos Bay Police Captain Mike Shaffer. There’s been no evidence of foul play in the deaths, according to Shaffer. He said at least two of the deaths occurred by suicide and four more were related to alcohol use and cold weather this winter.

Johnson, with the Devereux Center, said it’s hard to explain this dramatic increase in deaths. Coos County did not hold a one-night point-in-time count of homeless people this year because of health concerns with the pandemic. But anecdotally, she said, their services do not indicate a significant increase in the number of unsheltered people living in Coos County.

She also said there have been few cases of COVID-19 in the local homeless population. The Devereux Center screens for symptoms when people use their services.

One possible cause of the rise in deaths, she said, is an overall decline in mental health.

“I feel like the optimism that people have now versus a year ago is different. People are not as chipper, I guess, would be a good word,” she said. “We’ve had more people with greater mental health issues than previously, so that could indicate an increase in substance use.”

Ironically, a mild winter on the coast has also meant their overnight warming center has been open less often, since the temperature has not dropped below the threshold required to operate by the local city ordinance.

The Devereux Center is in the process of opening a community campground in Coos Bay, based on the a 60-site urban campground in Medford, operated by Rogue Retreat. That could be open by late April or early May. Hopefully, Johnson said, that will reduce the number of people exposed to the elements and provide a path to recovery.

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