“I guess he died in his sleep,” said his brother, Qaadir el-Amin. “At least it was a peaceful death.”
Karim el-Amin was one of at least 180 homeless people who died in the District in 2020 — a 54 percent increase over last year, according to data from the city’s medical examiner obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act. About 13 percent of the deaths this year stemmed from the coronavirus.
The data for “undomiciled” decedents — defined as “an individual who did not have stable housing and/or resided at a homeless shelter” — said 80 people died of “intoxication,” 23 died of covid-19, nine died as a result of homicide and four by suicide, among other causes of death.
The deaths peaked in April, according to the city’s data, when 33 homeless people died — including 11 of covid-19 during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of deaths is up from 117 in 2019. This year’s tally is through Dec. 11, the last day for which data is available, meaning the actual count is probably higher (although fatalities attributed to the coronavirus are recorded separately and are updated through Tuesday).
Beyond deaths from the coronavirus, there was an increase in fatalities this year broadly classified as “accidental,” which includes those attributed to intoxication, cardiovascular disease, people struck by vehicles and other causes, while there were slight increases in homicides and suicides.
An annual count of homeless people in June showed 6,380 residents were homeless in the District at that time — 141 fewer than in 2019 and the lowest since the count began in 2001.
Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage said in a statement that officials “are deeply saddened by any death among those experiencing homelessness and work hard every day to provide a continuum of care that supports those experiencing a housing emergency.”
The city provides encampment residents with hand sanitizer and cleaning products, Turnage said, and during the pandemic is limiting encampment “cleanups” — which force those living in tents beneath underpasses and elsewhere to move their belongings — to trash collection.
Turnage said the city works with homeless shelters to provide personal protective equipment and to test residents for the coronavirus, among other programs intended to slow the spread of the virus.
“For unsheltered residents, during the covid-19 public health emergency, our primary goal is ensuring that residents stay healthy and are informed of best practices,” he said.
Jesse Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Miriam’s Kitchen, a D.C.-based nonprofit that serves the homeless, said the deaths underscore “the urgent need for Mayor [Muriel E.] Bowser and the D.C. Council to increase, not cut, funding for housing that saves lives and ends homelessness.”
D.C. officials say they also have provided hotel rooms to homeless people who test positive, extended shelter operating hours and staggered mealtimes at shelters. Department of Human Services staff recently met with nonprofit providers to discuss city budget pressures as it provides those additional services.
While the number of deaths rose in the nation’s capital, it’s not clear how many homeless people die each year nationwide.
Donald H. Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless advocacy group, said in an email that such statistics can prove “illusive.” The coalition knows “for certain” that more than 5,000 people died, he said, but that number is based on a small number of reports.
“If you extrapolate . . . the numbers could be as low as 11,000 or as high as 40,000+,” he wrote.
Many homeless deaths involve causes other than frigid temperatures or disease.
However homeless people die, memorializing them is difficult during a public health emergency.
On Dec. 21, Robert Warren, a formerly homeless man who is the director of the advocacy group People for Fairness Coalition, gathered with other activists on the steps of the Wilson Building, the headquarters of D.C. government.
Last year, advocates gathered at Luther Place Memorial Church before a downtown march to commemorate homeless people who died in 2019. Though some gathered at Freedom Plaza this year, much of the service was exiled to Zoom by the pandemic’s latest wave of infections.
Warren, whose mother died this year of covid-19, urged city leaders to devote more funding to secure housing for those who need it. He said officials should continue to avoid clearing encampments throughout the pandemic, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that advises letting people on the streets — absent a better housing alternative — stay where they are.
Warren said the increase in deaths was partially due to inequities the coronavirus did not cause but merely shined a light on.
“It has to do a lot with systemic racism,” he said. “A lot of those folks listed in those numbers are Black men who were denied help for a lot of years.”
On the Zoom memorial call this month, Dana Woolfolk, a longtime advocate for the homeless who once was homeless himself, read the names of more than 70 people whom local organizations identified as dying while homeless this year. When their names weren’t known, he read their age — the same process he has completed for eight years.
“Each year I pray the same prayer,” he said. “Please resolve with me to make certain this is the last year.”