Homelessness is on the rise in every corner of the United States.
Living on the streets is a desolate circumstance nobody should have to endure. But there is something worse: dying on those very same streets under the weight of that desolate circumstance, without a home, without a name, without a legacy. Every life lost as a result of conditions related to homelessness could be described as a preventable tragedy.
There were nearly 1,500 of those in LA alone this year, a staggering figure that experts claim is likely an undercount.
An Overview of the Study: We Do Not Forget
A 2020-2021 study released by UCLA on December 1, 2021, found that at least 1,493 Los Angeles deaths were the lost lives of unhoused individuals.
One might read that and assume the data was collected on the authority of local government, with the end goal of obtaining firm data and approaching the homeless crisis with better solutions. Further scrutiny reveals that nothing could be further from the truth.
As it turns out, this study was the collective effort of a group of researchers acting on behalf of Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing and in response to what they called “a militarized police invasion of Echo Park Lake.”
This joint scholastic endeavor represents activists’ and academics’ work while echoing the voices of LA’s 70,000 unhoused individuals, collectively known as UTACH. In other words, this research would not have reached the public if it were not for a movement led by LA’s unhoused community, who turned academic attention in the direction of their fatal plight.
1,493 Deaths in LA’s Homeless Community Statistic: How the Data was Collected
Collecting data was no easy feat. Coroner data is wrought with limitations, while data specific to unhoused fatality is collected internally and not made readily available for public perusal. This means the After Echo Park Lake research collective had to painstakingly sift through thousands of documents seeking out deaths that were “sudden, violent, or unusual” and that happened in locations most frequented by unhoused individuals. Examples of such locations include deaths that took place:
- On the street
- In an alleyway or walkway
- In a tent
- On a sidewalk
- In a field
- In a parking lot, vacant lot, or underpass
- On a beach
- In or near a transient encampment
In total, researchers identified approximately 35 locations that were likely to be death sites for LA’s unhoused community members. They ranged from river beds and railroad tracks to public restrooms and, sadly, even trash dumpsters. Researchers comprised a list of approximately 1,493 names of people who tragically died at these sites from these locations.
Key Locations Observed in the Study
Approximately 35% of these deaths, or 542 lives, were lost on the sidewalks of Los Angeles. One hundred ninety-seven unhoused community members never made it out of a parking lot. Eighty-five people died between the concrete walls of an alleyway, and 84 more people lost their lives inside of tents. The top ten locations serving as death sites were:
- Parking Lots
- Railroad Tracks
- Transient encampments
The number of homeless deaths in LA County is currently 1,493. But that does not account for persons experiencing homelessness who might have died in what could be described as more “traditional settings,” such as in a hospital or residence.
It is entirely possible for an unhoused person to die inside someone else’s residence or wind up in an emergency room during those final moments. This is one of the reasons the number 1,493 is likely an undercount. But it’s not the only reason. Another number that needs a second look is the number of hotel deaths, which is astronomically high.
400 More Deaths Occurred in Hotel and Motel Rooms. These Lives Lost Likely Also Belonged to Unhoused Community Members
An astonishing 400 more deaths were recorded at hotels and motels when the whole nation was on lockdown, and travel was near impossible. These deaths are essential to note because they likely reflect the lives of people who were ushered out of homeless encampments and taken into hotels during the pandemic under now-defunct initiatives like Project Roomkey.
This is a critical point. It illustrates the trauma that coincides with forced relocation, particularly when sweeps are conducted and encampment residents are forced into temporary situations only to be exited back into homelessness or shuffled to another corner of despair.
Key Findings: 1,893 Deaths
Previously, Invisible People published a post that garnered much controversy by stating that 74% of all homeless people are not drug addicts. Here, we see yet another number that directly supports this claim, as only 37% of LA County’s homeless deaths are attributed to toxic substances, hotels, and motels notwithstanding.
Notably, that number jumps to 57% for homeless deaths occurring in hotel and motel rooms, making the case that sweeps followed by temporary housing solutions create “a collective condition of suffering caused by displacement,” to quote directly from the researchers.
It’s imperative that when we examine homeless deaths from drug or alcohol overdose, we bear in mind the fact that substance abuse problems can also occur as a response to the traumatic condition of being thrust into homelessness. This study urges social service professionals to hone in on the structural drivers of overdose mortality that can lead to “deaths of despair.”
Experts believe many of these deaths derive from the overlapping of social and economic disadvantage such as:
- Lack of affordable housing
- Housing insecurity
The overwhelming majority of these deaths were deemed accidental, making many preventable accidents. Perhaps the most heartbreaking statistic uncovered was the overall life expectancy of LA’s unhoused residents. The median age of death for this specific group of marginalized individuals was 47. That is almost half the life expectancy of LA’S housed population, which currently sits at 82.
To recap, homelessness takes human lives, cuts them in half, and destroys them in the cruelest manner possible. Is it any wonder the third and fourth leading causes of death in this peer group were suicide and homicide? Each accounted for 10% of the distribution.
As criminalization and violence against the unhoused community continue trending upward at alarming rates, we begin to see a chilling picture of the future.
Other notable findings include the role that gender and race play in homeless mortality. Males account for a jaw-dropping 85% of unhoused deaths. This statistic illustrates an unfilled need to provide permanent housing solutions to the male homeless population.
Another unsettling but long-enduring trend is the overrepresentation of minority ethnic groups such as LA’s Latinx and African American residents. Both groups share a four-percentage point overrepresentation in this study.
People are Dying on the Streets by the Thousands. Here’s How You Can Help.
Human lives are being lost. Lives are lost to diseases for which we have cures. Lost to murder at the hands of vicious assailants. Lost to suicide as social isolation and invisibility take their toll on the homeless community.
LA currently boasts the most unaffordable housing rates in the entire nation, yet policy is shifting toward increased criminalization. Urge your legislators to re-examine this criminal approach to homelessness and instead make housing a human right. So many lives depend on it.