More than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles county in 2018, double the number of deaths from six years ago. The increase is a stark illustration of the region’s severe housing crisis, advocates said.
The LA county public health department reported this week that 1,047 homeless people died last year, a number that has steadily increased every year since 2013, when 536 people died. The leading causes of death were coronary heart disease, which accounted for 22% of deaths, followed by alcohol and drug overdose at 21%, transportation-related injuries at 9%, homicides at 6% and suicides at 5%.
The data sheds light on a worsening public health emergency in the county, where officials estimate there are now 59,000 people homeless, including more than 44,000 people who are living unsheltered – in cars, tents, or makeshift quarters. The report also follows a string of high-profile attacks against homeless people in the area, including the killing of Darrell Fields, a beloved musician who was burned to death in his tent on Skid Row.
“We’ve got three people a day dying on the streets,” said Adam Rice, an organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA Can), a group that had worked closely with Fields. “It is a complete failure of leadership. Darrell didn’t need to die. None of these people needed to die. The reason this is happening is because there’s not proper housing.”
Soaring rents and a major shortage of affordable housing have pushed people out of their homes in the area, with more than half of unsheltered adults in a recent count saying they were experiencing homelessness for the first time. The county estimated that there are now 8,800 homeless families.
“It brings an overwhelming sadness when you think about precious human beings dying in our streets when it can be avoided,” said the Rev Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission (URM), which runs a shelter at Skid Row, at the epicenter of the crisis in downtown LA.
The county’s analysis also found that the mortality rate among homeless people has also jumped: “Put simply, being homeless in LA county is becoming increasingly deadly,” the agency wrote.
The increase in overdoses represented the largest jump in terms of causes of death, the report found. In addition, the mortality rate among white homeless people has decreased while the rate of deaths for black and Latino residents has increased, the county said. Overall, African Americans are four times more likely to experience homelessness in LA county than other groups.
Of the transportation-related deaths, which include vehicle and train collisions, 82% of victims were pedestrians and cyclists.
The county and local clinics have increasingly sent healthcare workers to encampments to try to serve people on the streets. More than 21,000 homeless people were also placed in housing last year, an increase from 2017, officials reported early this year.
The health department report this week recommended more direct outreach to homeless people, the creation of a “death review team” to study the subject and more traffic safety measures near encampments.
Bales predicted that medical visits were not enough to reverse the deadly trends: “What we need most is for everyone to be immediately under a roof and protected from the elements. Until that happens, the death rates will continue to grow … and more and more people will be devastated by homelessness.”
The crisis demanded a more urgent response, he added: “How much evidence do we need to gather before we decide not to let another human being die on the street?”
LA’s homeless crisis has recently received national attention, with the Trump administration suggesting it could pursue some kind of law enforcement crackdown, drawing skepticism from some local organizations. Advocates have criticized efforts to further criminalize people living on the streets and have argued that the government needs to put more funding to housing and shelter.
“It’s really a travesty when you think about it. How many deaths could’ve been prevented?” said Kourtney Milligan, a 29-year-old homeless woman, who has lived on Skid Row. “The resources that they say are out there are so hard to find.”