A report on deaths among homeless people in Santa Barbara County — based on data gathered in 2009 and 2010 — revealed that 86 percent of those who passed away in that time were male and that a majority struggled with both mental illness and drugs or alcohol. Over the two-year span of data collection, 79 deceased homeless were identified in the county, according to Public Health officials in a report to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Of those identified, 86 percent were U.S. citizens and 14 percent were veterans. Officials said 30 of the deaths were from natural causes, 28 were because of accidents, one was a suicide, and three involved trauma. Alcohol and drug abuse led to 46 percent of the deaths, while 27 percent came as a result of cardiovascular disease. Two-thirds of the people were dually diagnosed — that is, they used drugs or alcohol and also had mental-health issues.
For years, officials have been trying to figure out how to deal with the problem of homelessness in Santa Barbara County. As Dr. Takashi Wada, director of the Public Health Department, told the supervisors, the issue is “extraordinarily complex.” For example, there are large gaps in time between when most decedents last accessed services and their death. Many are resistant to treatment. Another issue is getting them correct treatment. There is an extreme lack of beds for those with drug, alcohol, or mental-health issues, and as Sheriff Bill Brown often says, the jail becomes the “de facto” mental-health facility for the mentally ill. With several consecutive years of ongoing budget cuts, it has only gotten worse.
But with the county now tracking homeless deaths, officials can begin to hone in on the most critical issues facing that population. “You now have a lot of data, and now is the time to do something with that information,” said homeless advocate Emily Allen, who, along with others, praised the report.