After 5 people died on streets this winter, Salt Lake City stopped counting deaths, Tribune found

Information about unsheltered people dying currently comes through informal channels and likely undercounts the true death toll.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man stands by the tent where a man experiencing homelessness was found dead in Salt Lake City in December 2022. The man found dead was one of five unsheltered people who died in Salt Lake City within one week. But beyond those seven days, city officials have not tracked the deaths of unsheltered people during one of Salt Lake City’s snowiest winters on record, The Tribune found.

Five people died in seven days on Salt Lake City streets in December, prompting a flurry of action from officials to increase shelter space amid frigid winter temperatures.

But beyond those seven days, the amount of unsheltered people who may have died during one of Salt Lake City’s snowiest winters on record is not known.

Salt Lake City police do not track deaths of unsheltered people. Neither does the city, nor state homelessness servicers. And the Utah Medical Examiner’s office doesn’t currently indicate in its data that a person who has died, no matter the cause, was homeless, The Salt Lake Tribune found.

When asked why Salt Lake City police released information about the five deaths in December but were unable to provide additional information, the police department’s communications director, Brent Weisberg, wrote in an email Jan. 26 that, “The deaths in December happened within a few days and gained public interest.”

Otherwise, Weisberg wrote, “Death investigations are not typically tracked by the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Public Relations Unit.”

The 5 deaths that officials shared

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City police conduct an abatement on Rio Grande Street shortly after the spate of deaths in December.

Salt Lake City Police Department documents obtained through a public records request paint a grim picture of that December week, when National Weather Service records show the city received more than a foot of snow and the average low temperature barely surpassed 20 degrees, with the average high just over 32. Most days, temperatures didn’t rise above freezing.

The first death was recorded Dec. 12, when officers found a man dead “outside of his tent,” which was “on the railroad tracks” near 1000 S. 500 West. A man at the scene told police the victim “froze to death.”

A woman who had been staying in the tent with the victim said he would often go out on cold nights to start a generator to keep them warm, and added that he’d smoked methamphetamine the night before. As she spoke with officers, she told them she couldn’t leave the tent “because she was cold.” The man’s family later told police he had asthma and recently had a cold.

Four days later, officers found another person dead “after sleeping on the ground overnight” at what’s known as “the island” — a park strip outside the Rio Grande Depot at 300 S. 500 West.

When officers found him, he “appeared stiff and rigid,” with his arms sticking straight into the air, while the rest of his body was underneath a blanket, police records state. Officers noted the victim saw medics the day before and “refused treatment or services.” The report states it was 17 degrees that morning and “likely colder overnight.”

That night, another man was found dead inside a tent a few blocks over. An officer wrote that there was “no evidence of trauma, drug use, or any other obvious causes of death.” The body “seemed to be very skinny and in a disheveled state.”

Within two days, officers were called to another death — a woman found “frozen” on a bus stop outside the hospital she’d been released from less than 24 hours earlier. Documents note she still had a hospital tag on her arm.

The medical examiner ruled her immediate cause of death as hypothermia, noting she also had “significant” heart and lung conditions.

The next day, Dec. 19, another person was found dead in a tent. The man who called 911 had been staying in the next tent over and said he didn’t know the victim’s name, but checked on him daily. Officers wrote, “He was shirtless, had thin pants on and no clothing near his body that would be worn for the inclement weather. He had no shoes on and no socks.” They found no weapons or drugs, and nothing that indicated he had been assaulted or died by suicide.

The following day, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an emergency order to expand shelter space. Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood said they would also add shelter space in their cities. (Overflow shelters closed last month, and existing resource centers returned to normal capacity May 1.)

At least 2,095 people were living on Salt Lake County streets in 2022, according to a point-in-time count the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness conducted — lower than in 2021, but still higher than the three years prior. Volunteers conducted this year’s point-in-time count in January, but totals haven’t yet been released.

“It’s our hope that by enabling this additional capacity,” Mendenhall said while announcing the emergency order, “the operators of each of the shelters will be able to offer the space that our countywide system needs now in order to guarantee the availability of a bed for anyone seeking shelter.”

Yet, after these five deaths, city officials did not track any deaths that followed, The Tribune found.

Weisberg in January referred The Tribune to the state medical examiner’s office for more information. The medical examiner’s office is barred by law from releasing information about an individual’s death to the media, though it does release such information to police.

The Tribune in January requested police watch logs dating back to Nov. 1, as well as police reports, to better understand whether more unsheltered people had died during winter. When The Tribune followed up with Salt Lake City police on April 12 about information found in the records, a spokesperson said in an email that there were no updates.

“The passing of anyone while experiencing homelessness is always incredibly sad and it’s why we are so focused on solutions to homelessness with our state and county partners,” Andrew Johnston, the Salt Lake City mayor’s homeless policy and outreach director, said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

“However,” he continued, “the role of investigating and determining the cause of death of any person lies with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner and initial police reports are not a substitute for official medical records.”

What The Tribune found

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man sleeps on the sidewalk in December. Five people died on Salt Lake City streets within one December week. But beyond those seven days, city officials have not tracked the deaths of unsheltered people during one of Salt Lake City’s snowiest winters on record. The Tribune identified other cases involving the deaths of people who may have been unsheltered.

Using police department records, The Salt Lake Tribune identified at least four additional homeless deaths — not including the five previously released by the police department — between Nov. 1 and Jan. 25. The Tribune also identified other cases of interest, but was unable to verify the decedent’s housing status.

The four homeless deaths The Tribune identified include the suicide of a man living in a motorhome at an apartment complex. He died Nov. 14, after being promised a job at the complex (which would have provided him a unit to live in), then learning his offer was rescinded after failing a background check, records state. On Dec. 4, police watch logs indicate a person was found dead in a tent at a “local transient camp” near Cornell Street and North Temple.

On Jan. 24, officers received a call about a man who was cold to the touch and slumped beneath a bridge at 1220 W. North Temple. Records indicate that he had “a history of drug use, mental illness and was homeless.” The next day, officers learned about the death of a man in a limestone kiln in the foothills above 1180 N. Beck St. The police report says, “it appears [the man] may have had a medical condition or succumbed to the elements.”

Outside The Tribune’s efforts to account for these deaths, homeless service providers also keep an informal count. The Fourth Street Clinic keeps a list, said Laurel Ingham, development director for the clinic, which provides health care and other services to people experiencing homelessness.

This list, which is used to compile names for an annual vigil to remember people who died in the past year and have experienced homelessness, doesn’t track cause of death and includes people who have shifted in and out of homelessness, not necessarily people who were unhoused when they died. Ingham said the clinic knows of three deaths since last year’s vigil at the end of December.

[Read more: This year, at least 159 homeless Utahns died. The death toll is likely higher, officials say.]

Some law enforcement agencies also keep records of such deaths. Provo Police Department, for instance, reported five deaths of people considered “transient” or “unhoused” this past winter season, spokesperson Janna-Lee Holland said. A record-keeping system allows the department to label and track cases involving people experiencing homelessness.

The first unhoused death Provo police recorded this year involved a man found dead downtown Oct. 23 outside the old county courthouse. The medical examiner ruled he died from hypothermia and ethanol toxicity. His death was the only one of the five officially attributed to hypothermia.

Another man was found dead Oct. 31 and reportedly died from drug and ethanol toxicity. Another was found dead on Christmas, inside an industrial building where the owner allowed him to stay. His cause of death remains unknown, Holland said.

On New Year’s Day, a woman was found dead near the city library. She is suspected to have died due to heart issues and drug toxicity. On Jan. 14, a man was discovered dead in the storage unit he used as a home. He died after a medical issue, records indicate.

A better tracking system

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Candles burn during a vigil held on Dec. 21. with the names of 159 individuals who have experienced homelessness who died in 2022.

Utah’s state homelessness coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, announced an effort to better track the deaths of unsheltered people in Utah at the 2022 vigil. He said the 159 deaths mentioned at the December memorial service — higher than any number recorded in the last six years — was likely an undercount because the state hasn’t kept track.

This move to formally monitor such deaths represented “a monumental change,” he said at the time, that “will inform our collective efforts to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring for years to come.”

But after the series of December deaths in Salt Lake City, when Niederhauser asked the medical examiner’s office for reports on deaths of unsheltered people, he was told no — unless someone changed the law, he said in an April interview. Utah law restricts the medical examiner from releasing its findings for an individual’s death to anyone but that person’s immediate relative, legal guardian or personal representative, attending physician, criminal attorneys or law enforcement.

When asked if he intended to push legislation to grant him and other government officials access to these reports in real time, Niederhauser, a longtime state senator before Gov. Spencer Cox appointed him as homeless coordinator, said, “That’s not the highest priority on our list right now. I think it’s too early to say.”

Instead, he pointed to efforts to increase available housing and shelter space.

“I don’t want to know how many people died. I want to prevent deaths, and that’s what we were about doing this legislative session,” he said.

He pointed to “code blue,” a provision in HB499 that allowed shelters to expand capacity when temperatures drop to 15 degrees or lower. The bill also set an earlier deadline for Salt Lake County to finalize winter shelter plans and allocated $2.5 million from the state’s general fund for “Shelter Cities Mitigation,” which helps cities with a shelter and offers money to communities willing to open overflow facilities, so long as they enforce camping bans. Cox signed the bill into law in March.

Lawmakers also allotted $50 million for deeply affordable housing during the general session, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst budget summary. A 2021 legislative audit found Utah would need to spend more than $300 million to meet demand for permanent supportive housing, and more than $52 million each year to meet ongoing demand. Mendenhall proposed an additional $10 million for affordable housing in her 2024 budget. She said Salt Lake City has spent more than $56 million on affordable housing since 2020.

Niederhauser and the rest of the state must now wait for an ongoing effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to release aggregate data about deaths of unsheltered people that it’s working to collect from the medical examiner’s office.

Johnston, with Salt Lake City, said he was encouraged to hear about the state’s efforts to better track the deaths of people experiencing homelessness “with the broader goal of being able to prevent those deaths in the future.”

But Jenny Johnson, a spokesperson with Health and Human Services, said in an email that the data is currently “far from being ready for public release,” noting that the medical examiner’s office recently began training on how to consistently categorize decedents as homeless.

She said the office may release the information in 2024 — or “perhaps longer for some low-incident types of deaths” — once the office has collected enough aggregate information.

She added the state would likely release information, including housing status, later this summer for a subset of deaths caused by overdose or suicide in 2021.