Nearly 1,500 homeless people died on the streets of Los Angeles during pandemic, researchers say

·4 min read
File photo: People walk by the Skid Row neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles on 25 November (AFP via Getty Images)
File photo: People walk by the Skid Row neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles on 25 November (AFP via Getty Images)

At least 1,500 unhoused people died in Los Angeles — one of the wealthiest metropolitan cities in the world — during the pandemic, a new study has estimated.

The report titled “We Do Not Forget: Stolen Lives of LA’s Unhoused During the Covid-19 Pandemic” showed that “up to 1,493 unhoused persons may have passed away in Los Angeles County’s streets or outdoor spaces” between March 2020 and July 2021.

The most common cause of death, found by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a coalition of unhoused residents, was “accidental overdose”.

As many as 542 people died on the sidewalk. At more than 35 per cent of all cases, this was the most common place of death.

“The remaining sites in the list with total counts are parking lot (197), alley (85), tent (84), park (75), embankment (54), railroad tracks (46), walkway (45), trailer (41), and transient encampment (34),” the report said.

Other places where people were found dead included sheds, bus benches, shelters, riverbeds, underpasses, vacant lots, abandoned buildings, beaches, hillsides and public restrooms.

The study added that though Black residents were only 8 per cent of the county’s population, they made up for 25 per cent of the coroner’s cases. In contrast, white residents, 26 per cent of the county’s population, accounted for 33 per cent of the coroner’s cases.

Among those unhoused who died during the pandemic, males accounted for a larger majority with 85 per cent of the cases.

The report revealed that the average age at death for unhoused persons was 47 years old — significantly lower than LA County’s life expectancy of 82 years.

“This young age of death is disturbing,” said Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which produced the report.

“If we were to see this metric in any other part of the world, we would dismiss that place as one of great poverty, as a violator of human rights, as a predatory government that exploits its people,” Ms Roy told The Guardian. “We’ve got to get serious about using that metric to understand the levels of impoverishment and abandonment here in the US.”

Co-author Chloe Rosenstock said: “When people are passing away outdoors and on the sidewalks, that is a failure of the state.”

The authors said most of these deaths were preventable in the first place.

The report added that there were an additional 418 persons who passed away in hotels and motels — a place of death not identified in the coroner’s data.

“Tourism underwent a sharp decline and hotel vacancy rates soared. We thus make the viable assumption that those residing in hotels and motels during this time period were either unhoused persons placed in the Project Roomkey programme or persons experiencing dire housing precarity relying on hotel and motel rooms as a housing of last resort,” the report said.

Project Roomkey is an effort by Los Angeles county to help unhoused people during the pandemic.

The report added added: “This means that many of the 418 hotel/motel deaths must be added to the 1,493 deaths for a more robust count of unhoused deaths in Los Angeles County between March 2020 and July 2021.”

Meanwhile, a recent separate study by Los Angeles Business Council Institute found that nearly four in 10 voters in Los Angeles said that unhoused people in their neighbourhood made them feel “significantly unsafe”.

There were at least 63,706 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, according to LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA ) in 2020 — a 13 per cent increase from 2019.

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