City Council to discuss possibility of health study on city of Berkeley’s homeless population

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On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council is set to discuss the possibility of a citywide health study that would look into the health conditions, disparities and mortality rates of the city’s homeless population during the last five years.

Recommended by the city’s Homeless Commission in June, the report would require the Berkeley Division of Public Health to gather the information for the study. Community members living in shelters, vehicles, on the streets — or any other location not intended as a living space — would be the focus of the study.

“The homeless are part of the Berkeley community in great numbers,” reads the report. The visible medical conditions of many and the recent mortality rates merit attention to compiling data and making recommendations on improving their health conditions and mitigating mortality rates.”

The proposed study also recommends that the health conditions and mortality rates of the city’s homeless population and general community members be compared. Cause of death would also be identified and demographic data —  race, age, gender and known disabilities — would be gathered.

Dee Williams-Ridley, Berkeley city manager, has already taken a position on the commission’s recommendation in a companion report set to be presented at Tuesday’s meeting.

In the report, Williams-Ridley recommended that city council work with Alameda County to “explore the feasibility” of classifying homelessness as a data point in death records. She also recommended investigating the possibility of investing money to start tracking the proposed information.

“Staff greatly appreciate the (Homeless) Commission’s continued advocacy for the unhoused and their suggestions to gather as much relevant information as possible,” reads the city manager’s report. “Unfortunately, without substantial investment in additional City resources, these recommendations are not possible to execute.”

The report notes that current public health staff would not be capable of surveying the entirety of the city’s homeless population as required by the study. According to the report, city staff are also unable to report on health conditions because “homelessness” is not currently a data point for county death records.

While the city coroner’s office “occasionally” marks homelessness in reports, evaluating a patient’s housing status after death is “difficult” and “fraught with bias,” according to the companion report. The city’s Office of Vital Statistics tracks deaths every two years — a three-year difference to the commission’s recommended five years of data.

Once completed, the proposed study could make recommendations that would decrease the mortality rates of homeless people in the city.

“Recently, a significant number of homeless persons living in … locations not intended for human habitation in Berkeley have died,” reads the commission’s report. “Before implementing any new programs or making generalized recommendations, data must be compiled.”

Contact Clara Rodas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ClaraRodas10.