Deaths Among Unhoused Los Angelenos Reaches Record High

Deaths in Los Angeles increasing among unsheltered homeless people

Life on the streets of Los Angeles has become increasingly deadly for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, according to a new report from the LA County Board of Public Health.

Overall, deaths among unhoused Angelenos have been increasing for the last seven years. In 2021, a record-high of 2,200 unhoused Los Angelenos died from causes ranging from traffic deaths to drug overdoses, representing a 55% increase from 2019. However, some activists believe the total is much higher because the public health board’s data doesn’t include people who died in medical care, shelters, or cars.

The spike in deaths also occurred when the city put in place several pandemic-related programs designed to help LA’s unhoused community. For example, the city allocated $5 million of CARES Act funds to expand its homeless outreach programs, which include mental health and substance abuse professionals.

“We’re always hearing about this person or that person passing away, and it’s a lot of heartbreak,” Angie Campos, an unhoused Angeleno, told The Guardian.

Drug Overdoses Among Leading Causes of Death

To Barbara Ferrer, director of LA County’s Department of Public Health, one of the report’s most concerning findings is that drug overdoses were the leading cause of deaths among unsheltered Angelenos over the last two years.

The report found that fentanyl was the driving cause of overdose deaths among unhoused Angelenos, accounting for 58% of overdoses in 2021. That total represents a sharp increase from 2019, when just 20% of unhoused deaths were caused by fentanyl overdoses.

Some people experiencing unsheltered homelessness will abuse drugs and alcohol, hoping to find temporary comfort while living outside. But this tactic has become much more life-threatening given the proliferation of fentanyl in other substances.

For instance, the report found that 71% of overdoses involving fentanyl also involved methamphetamine.

“With more than one out of every three deaths among people experiencing homelessness attributed to drug overdose, urgent action is needed to ensure that unhoused individuals with substance use disorder have access to treatment and harm reduction services that meet people where they are,” Ferrer said.

Traffic Fatalities Increased Nationwide During Pandemic

The report found another leading cause of death among unhoused Angelenos was traffic injuries. That trend correlated with a nationwide increase in unhoused traffic fatalities during the first two years of the pandemic.

However, the report said the notable increase in traffic-related injuries among people experiencing homelessness suggests that the unhoused may have been “disproportionately affected” by the overall rise in traffic fatalities. One reason is that many unsheltered encampments are located near roadways in LA County.

In turn, the report adds that “accelerating the placement of unsheltered [people experiencing homelessness] into permanent housing will also go a long way toward reducing the traffic-injury mortality gap.

Harm Reduction and Safe Injection Sites Recommended

The report also recommends that LA County officials combine harm reduction and housing efforts to prevent a further increase in the mortality rate of unhoused Angelenos. For example, the report recommends that officials continue to advance harm reduction legislation to establish safe injection sites to prevent further overdose deaths.

It also recommends that officials expand training for substance use disorder and expand the use of mobile clinics to reach people experiencing homelessness where they are. Officials should also leverage available funds to create more bridge housing and recovery housing options.

“Moving forward, we need to recognize that people who are unhoused need both housing and services to reduce their risk of death, and for us to close the distressing mortality gaps, policy and system changes are in order,” Ferrer said.

How You Can Help

Handcuffs will never solve homelessness. The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the United States. It also showed that many programs designed to address homelessness are rooted in law enforcement rather than social services.

Tell your representatives you support revamping how your city addresses homelessness. Handcuffs do not get anyone closer to stable housing. Instead, we must focus on compassionate solutions, the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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