Twenty-two people with no known address died in Seattle and King County during the first two months of 2017, and a group of women dressed in black stood vigil on March 8 as a silent reminder that their deaths would not be forgotten.
Women in Black, a project of the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), conducts their remembrances using data they receive data from the King County Medical Examiner’s office documenting the number of deaths over the previous month.
The number of dead was higher this time than for past events, in part because the release was delayed by the Health Care for the Homeless Network, which works with the Medical Examiner’s Office to release the information.
The County didn’t release the list of names and causes of death until March 2 because Health Care for the Homeless was reviewing its policies to ensure that it was complying with privacy and notification requirements, according to an email from the organization.
Although the complete list was released, the delay was “unprecedented” and painful, said Allene Steinberg, a member of WHEEL.
The list received by the Women in Black functions within the homeless community like the obituary section of a newspaper. To wait months before releasing the full, unredacted list means that some people will find out that friends have died months after the fact, Steinberg said.
“They call some homeless people ‘transient,’ and that’s for a good reason,” Steinberg said. “They move around. You figure they’ve left town for a few days, or something like that, and then you get this list and oh lord, they’ve been dead for two months.
“You feel bad, grief stricken. You look at the list again and see someone you knew, one of your friends,” Steinberg said.
Women in Black also curates the list differently than the Medical Examiner’s Office. While the Medical Examiner includes all deaths of people without a permanent address, both indoor and outdoor, Women in Black only count deaths of people who die outside or by violence. Outdoor deaths also do not include people who were living in organized Tent Cities, including those run by the Seattle Housing And Resource Effort (SHARE), which partners with WHEEL.
The result is that while the Medical Examiner found 91 deaths of “likely homeless” people in 2016, Women in Black counted 62. For January and February 2017, the Medical Examiner counted 22 deaths, while Women in Black found 15 and held a vigil for them plus seven names of people who died in December.
Still, the number is high, Steinberg said, as is the number of deaths by hypothermia. Four people died from exposure to the cold within days of the opening of winter weather shelters in the city and county, according to the Medical Examiner’s report.
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