Lack of shelter makes solvable problems nearly insurmountable

Ashley Hamilton, program manager at ARCHES, talks with a local homeless resident in the field.

One of the horrors of 52-year-old Sharon Rene Pritchard’s death last month is that it was entirely predictable. 

There’s even something like a formula for calculating it, tri-morbid homelessness. If a shelterless person is dealing with physical ailments on top of mental health diagnoses coupled with a substance abuse problem, research suggests they will die on the streets around age 52. 

As far as her family knew, Sharon was in decent physical shape, but that was nearly three years ago. And Sharon had been seeking relief from mental health problems in the bottom of a bottle for at least the past decade. 

Ashley Hamilton, program manager for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency’s ARCHES Project, said it is difficult to speak about specific cases without a full medical history, but that Salem-Keizer’s chronically homeless population “experience tri-morbidity almost 100 percent of the time, and all of the people in our homeless rental assistance program have experienced tri-morbidity.”

Someone is tagged as chronically homeless if they have lived without shelter for more than 12 months or their episodes of homelessness outweigh the times when they have shelter. 

The only proven way to move someone out of the tri-morbid designation is get them into safe, consistent shelter, Hamilton said. 

“Housing is the first line of defense, people can have a place to live and survive the physical, mental and substance abuse problems,” she said. 

Without housing, the outcome can be fatal, as it was in Pritchard’s case. 

Even though Pritchard did not die of exposure, her fate is not out of line with the patterns that have been studied, according to Hamilton. 

“When you are homeless, you cannot meet your basic needs, you aren’t eating, you aren’t showering, you aren’t sleeping – that’s a huge one – and you are not able to access the services you need to have better health,” she said. 

The stresses of living without consistent shelter also ages people more quickly. 

“Someone who has been on the streets for 10 years, might have aged 20 or 30 years,” Hamilton said.

Unfortunately, fatalities as a result of tri-morbidity are also hard to track when people fall out of touch with support services such as ARCHES. 

“Anecdotally, we probably have five cases like this per year and they’re devastating each and every time. It hurts because they were on our radar and then they disappeared. The next time we hear about them is in the news when someone gets hit by a car or dies of hypothermia,” Hamilton said. 

It’s also going to keep happening until area officials commit to a solution that goes beyond shuffling people from one public space to another. Less than a month after Pritchard died, another 44-year-old homeless man walking his bike in south Salem was struck and killed by a driver reaching for a fallen cell phone. 

“This is just going to keep happening until we can find adequate housing solutions for everyone. It can be rental assistance, transitional housing, adequate shelter capacity or anything that gets the first brick in the wall,” she said.