‘Domicile Unknown’

New law to bring down the ‘wall of silence’ around homeless deaths

A new law will take effect in Oregon on Jan. 1 requiring that death reports disclose the housing status of the deceased. For those who die while homeless, death reports will list the residential address as “domicile unknown.”

The law is part of Senate Bill 850, which was introduced by Oregon Sen. Deb Patterson, a Democrat who represents parts of Marion and Polk counties. Fellow Democrat Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, representing Aloha in the Portland metro area, was the chief co-sponsor. 

Those involved with the crafting of the bill hope that listing “domicile unknown” on a homeless person’s death report will make it easier to track causes of death for those who are unhoused, create a consistent means of keeping these records statewide and make communities across the state more aware of the number of unhoused individuals dying on the street. This law will not change the fact that media outlets such as Eugene Weekly are not notified when a homeless person dies. 

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, started keeping track of homeless deaths himself when the pandemic began for fear that deaths might increase exponentially due to a then fairly unknown virus. And while COVID-19 itself did not have a huge impact on deaths, outside factors related to the pandemic, such as reduced shelter capacity and less outreach, did. Jones estimates that in Marion and Polk counties, which MWVCAA primarily serves, around 40 homeless people have died since the beginning of the pandemic. In Lane County, an estimated 38 homeless people died in 2021 alone.   

In early 2021, Patterson visited the managed homeless camp at the state fairgrounds, run in part by the MWVCAA. Jones told her that virtually no one knew that the tragedy was even occurring because Oregon has no reporting law and no requirements for data tracking surrounding homeless deaths. Patterson said she could craft a bill. 

“If we can search by ‘domicile unknown,’ then we can say, ‘Look, people are dying from exposure, from gangrene, from untreated wounds,’” Patterson says. “This would give us more chances of being proactive in terms of wraparound services we provide to supportive housing communities.”

Jones hopes the new law will also help to bring down the “wall of silence” surrounding homeless deaths. 

“Information is very, very critical in shaping public policy,” Jones says. “Once something is out there and published it implies a responsibility, a societal obligation to eliminate the suffering and prevent people from dying what are in many cases horrific deaths in atrocious conditions.”

Pam Cadiente, medical legal death investigator for Lane County Medical Examiner’s office, says the medical examiner currently uses the word “transient” for a homeless person’s residential status, so in their case, “domicile unknown” will replace that. Cadiente also says that the new law will not alter the fact that the press is not notified when a homeless person dies, because their office does not notify the press of any death, regardless of residential status. 

When EW asked the Eugene Police Department what prevents the police from notifying the press or confirming a reported death when someone dies homeless, EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin responded via email, “EPD is primarily a law enforcement agency and we track crime. Being homeless is not a crime.”

Eugene-Springfield Fire Department officials have told EW that they are barred from disclosing any information about homeless deaths by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, often referred to as HIPAA.

Jones does not think much will change initially after the Oregon law takes effect. He foresees struggles as local administrators, police and medical examiners figure out how to employ the law. Additionally, he says it is sometimes difficult for medical examiners to determine whether someone was homeless when they passed away.

But Jones says he hopes that over the course of 2022, local administrators will figure out how to best implement the law in their communities. And in 2023, OHA will put out a report that will provide a better idea of what the overall scale of homeless deaths in Oregon truly is, as well as what is causing them. This, he says, will make the crisis much more difficult to ignore.

This story has been updated.