In Boulder’s homeless community hypothermia remains a valid fear

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A man panhandling while another man sweeps the path in China. Source: Jonathan Kos-Read, flickr.

Death by hypothermia may be rare in Boulder, but for the homeless community it is a real and dangerous threat.

David Ayers, 62, lived in Boulder in 1979 and mostly slept under bridges. When he was homeless in Boulder, the city was reconfiguring Pearl Street as a pedestrian mall and there weren’t any homeless shelters. Ayers said he can’t remember just one traumatic event trying to survive the winter, but he had a couple every week.

“Lots and lots and lots of nights you think you’re going to freeze to death,” said Ayers, who now lives in a house in Farmington, New Mexico. “You get afraid to go to sleep because you think you won’t wake up.”

While exposure to frigid conditions is the hallmark of death by hypothermia, people’s health, age and clothing also play a factor in how likely they are to survive, said Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall.

People are in danger of hypothermia when their bodies dip below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, Hall said. The cold creeps into people’s limbs first and turns their bodies shades of pink, all while a sense of tiredness slowly envelops them.

It slows a person’s heart rate and eventually affects their respiratory system too, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Our body is not meant to be operating at low temperatures, so we really need to have the correct environment for our body to stay stable,” Hall said.

Hall said humidity when mixed with cold temperatures can be very dangerous to those exposed to the elements. A person can exhibit symptoms of hypothermia at any temperature lower than 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Boulder County Coroner first began tracking homeless and transient deaths in 2011 when Hall became the coroner. She said that prior to her administration deaths within this subgroup of Boulder County were not noted in the annual reports.

According to the Boulder County Coroner’s 2014 Annual Report, 54 homeless people died during 2011-2014 from a various causes of death. Over these years, one person was murdered and three deaths could not be determined. There were also 28 homeless people who died of natural causes, 19 died accidental deaths and two people committed suicide.

In that time period, the report notes two of the accidental deaths were due to hypothermia, and two died of alcohol intoxication and hypothermia.

The graphic below depicts the number of deaths per year from 2011-2015 and the manner of each death. It also breaks down the accidental deaths into the different causes of death.

Homeless deaths in Boulder, Colorado from 2011-2015. Source: Emma Gibson.

Homeless deaths in Boulder, Colorado from 2011-2015. Source: Emma Gibson.

Though the Coroner’s Office has not yet released the 2015 Annual Report, Hall said 17 homeless people died in 2015. Of these 17 deaths, four were accidental and one was due to hypothermia.

Unfortunately, Hall said the Boulder County Coroner’s office does not yet know how many deaths there have been within the homeless community in 2016. They simply haven’t written the report yet.

“We’re not seeing an exorbitant amount of hypothermia deaths in Boulder County,” said Hall.

She said she’s not surprised that Boulder County has one or two hypothermia deaths per year with the size of transient community in this county.

On the winter solstice, Boulder’s day shelter for the homeless, Bridge House, will join shelters across the United States by hosting a memorial service remembering everyone who has died within the homeless community throughout the year, said Isabel McDevitt, the executive director of Bridge House.

This ceremony honors individuals currently homeless and anyone with a history of homelessness in the city of Boulder.

According to an email from Bridge House staff member Dylann Moore, Bridge House knows of five people in the homeless community who died in 2016. However, their database does not catalogue how these people died or say if these people were actively homeless at the time of their deaths.

McDevitt said she will double-check their list with Hall’s records within the next month to make sure Bridge House includes all of the names of the homeless who died in 2016 in the memorial service.

“It’s certainly a time to remember people who have been lost from the community,” McDevitt said. “It’s an important time for people who support homeless services to come together and support each other.”

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