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LA County Homeless Deaths Spiked During Pandemic’s First Year

LA County report shows drug overdoses remain leading cause of death

By Dolores Quintana

A new report from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health found that deaths of unhoused people during the first year of the pandemic rose dramatically. 

Overall, the deaths among the homeless population increased by 56 percent in comparison to the previous year’s total.

This spike in deaths was partially caused by COVID-19, but even with the dangers of the virus, drug overdoses were still the number one cause of death among people experiencing homelessness. 

In total, 1,988 unhoused people died between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021. 1,271 homeless individuals died in the same time period in the previous year. Overall, drug overdoses rose by 78 percent percent among the unhoused in comparison to the year before. 

179 homeless people died of COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic which translates to 25 percent of the total increase in deaths for the 2020 to 2021 time period. Without counting the deaths from COVID-19, the number of unhoused deaths nevertheless rose by 43 percent. 

During the first year of the pandemic, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death among unhoused people. Drug overdoses were ranked as the leading cause of death followed by coronary heart disease, COVID-19, traffic injuries and homicide per the Los Angeles County report. 

Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement, “The findings in this report reflect a true state of emergency on the streets across our county. In a civil society, it is unacceptable for any of us to not be profoundly disturbed by the shocking needs documented in this year’s homeless mortality report. We must redouble our efforts to address this crisis. As part of our response, it is critical that we address the drug epidemic, particularly the rise of fentanyl on our streets.”

Statistically, deaths caused by overdoses among unhoused people under the age of 50 doubled during the first year of the pandemic according to the report and specifically, overdose deaths among unhoused Latinx people rose alarmingly to 84 percent and 74 percent among Black unhoused people and 67 percent among white unhoused people. 

75 percent of the deaths were caused by methamphetamine, which was about the same amount of deaths caused by the drug in the previous time period. Deaths caused by Fentanyl rose from 27 percent to 45 percent. 

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement, “While efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 remain critically important, we must also implement effective strategies that address the other leading causes of death among this vulnerable population, most importantly the tragic continued rise in drug overdose deaths.”

According to County officials, they have a series of steps that they plan to follow to attempt to prevent more deaths among the unhoused. These steps include expanding substance abuse treatment services for the unhoused, increasing the distribution of naloxone or Narcan, a medicine used to treat drug overdoses to unhoused people in shelters and on the streets and enforcing infectious disease protocols at shelters and encampments.

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