Homeless deaths in Los Angeles County rose 56% in the year after the pandemic began, driven primarily by an increase in overdoses, according to a study published this month.
Between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, 1,988 homeless deaths were reported, up from 1,271 in the previous 12 months, pre-pandemic, according to the Department of Public Health study.
The numbers in LA County mirror figures recorded in San Francisco during a similar time period; Between March 2020 and March 2021, 331 homeless people died in the city, more than double the number reported in any previous year, according to a study co-authored by scientists at UC San Francisco, San Francisco Department of Public Health. and New York University.
The LA County report, unlike in previous years, does not provide a homeless death rate due to restrictions placed on the annual homeless count.
“The findings in this report reflect a true state of emergency on the streets of our county,” First District Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. “In a civil society, it is unacceptable that any of us are not deeply disturbed by the shocking needs documented in this year’s Homeless Mortality Report.”
In the year surveyed, 179 homeless people died from COVID-19, representing about a quarter of the increase in total deaths from the previous year.
Still, an increase in fatal overdoses was the main driver of the increase. In the pre-pandemic year, the Department of Public Health reported just over 400 overdose deaths. In the year after the outbreak, that number nearly doubled to 715.
For some homeless advocates, the results are disturbing but not unexpected.
“The increases in overdoses are not surprising; we’ve seen it anecdotally,” said Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles Medical Director Dr. Susan Partovi. “We are trying to give everyone Narcan [an overdose-reversing nasal spray] as much as possible.”
The pandemic has likely exacerbated an already growing overdose problem, driven primarily by the prevalence of fentanyl, making it more difficult for homeless people to access care.
It’s more difficult to make an appointment for Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, and access any sort of resource, Partovi said.
Partovi called for the implementation of safe injection sites, such as those in New York City, to combat the opioid epidemic. These sites allow drug use while providing clean needles and other medical treatments, as well as monitoring users for overdoses.
“We need to stop defaming people who are addicted to drugs,” said Partovi.
Homeless youth, Latinos and blacks have been impacted by the increase in deaths, according to the report.
Overall deaths increased by more than 105% among ages 18 to 29, 69% among Latinos and 58% among blacks.
Nearly 200 homeless black people died in the year after the pandemic began than the year before, while there were 334 more deaths among Latinos.
Homeless youth, Latinos and blacks were also the most affected by overdose deaths, with increases of more than 112% for 18-29 and 30-49 year olds, 84% for Latinos and 74% for Black people. .
In addition, homicide deaths have increased by nearly 50% and deaths from traffic accidents have increased by more than 30%.
The county has tried to address barriers to care during the pandemic and has worked to provide services and support to the homeless, including crisis response teams to connect homeless people to coronavirus tests and vaccines, said public health director Barbara Ferrer.
An estimated 65% of homeless people in LA County received at least one dose of the vaccine, a decent but not ideal percentage, Ferrer said.
The county has made efforts to offer homeless residents places where they can be quarantined or isolated, Ferrer said, and Project Roomkey’s hotel rooms could prevent medically vulnerable people from living in a situation that would create more danger for them because of of COVID-19.
“So I want to give a lot of credit to the county and all the workers — and we have a lot of private organizations also helping — who have done everything we can,” she said. “But I still think that the root of the homeless problem, during the pandemic, has led to an increase in mortality among people who are homeless.”
The municipality plans to expand harm reduction services with a focus on Latino and black homeless people, increase distribution of naloxone, and expand investments in other areas of care.
But the report also notes that homeless deaths have been rising for years without the help of a pandemic.
“This recent increase, while remarkably large, is consistent with a long-term trend … since 2014,” the report said.