Overdoses lead to 56% increase in homeless deaths in LA County

Homeless deaths in Los Angeles County soared 56% in the year since the start of the pandemic, largely due to 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, compared to 1,271 in the 12 months before the pandemic, according to the study by the Ministry of Public Health.

LA County’s numbers mirror numbers recorded in San Francisco over a similar 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 University of San Francisco study.

The LA County report, unlike previous years, does not provide a homeless death rate due to restrictions on the annual homeless count.

“The findings of 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 for any of us not to be deeply disturbed by the shocking needs documented in this year’s homeless mortality report.”

During the year under review, 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 has been 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 following the outbreak, that figure nearly doubled, to 715.

For some homeless advocates, the results are disturbing but not unexpected.

“The increase in overdoses is not surprising; we’ve seen it anecdotally,” said Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles medical director Dr. Susan Partovi. “We try 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, by making it more difficult for homeless people to access care.

It’s harder to book an appointment for Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, and to access any kind of resources, Partovi said.

Partovi called for the establishment of safe injection sites, like those in New York, to combat the opioid epidemic. These sites enable drug use while providing clean needles and other medical treatment as well as monitoring users for overdoses.

“We need to stop vilifying drug addicts,” Partovi said.

According to the report, young people, Latinos and homeless black people have been most affected by the increase in deaths.

Overall deaths increased by more than 105% among 18-29 year olds, 69% among Latinos and 58% among blacks.

Nearly 200 more black homeless people have died in the year since the pandemic began than the year before, when there were 334 more deaths among Latinos.

Young, Latino and black homeless people 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 blacks.

In addition, homicide deaths increased by almost 50% and traffic accident deaths increased by more than 30%.

The county has attempted to overcome barriers to care during the pandemic and worked to provide services and support for the homeless, including crisis response teams to connect homeless people to coronavirus testing and to vaccinations, said Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer.

An estimated 65% of homeless people in LA County have received at least one dose of the vaccine, a decent but not ideal percentage, Ferrer said.

The county has made efforts to provide homeless residents with places to quarantine or be isolated, Ferrer said, and Project Roomkey hotel rooms can prevent medically vulnerable people from living in a situation that would create more danger to them because of COVID-19.

“So I want to give a lot of credit to the county and all the workers – and we also have a lot of private organizations helping us – who did everything we could,” she said. “But I still think the root of the homelessness problem has, during the pandemic, led to increased mortality among homeless people.”

The county plans to expand harm reduction services with a focus on Latino and black homeless people, increase naloxone distribution, and increase investments in other areas of care.

But the report also notes that homeless deaths have been on the rise for years, without the help of a pandemic.

“This recent increase, while significant, is consistent with a longer-term trend…since 2014,” the report said.

Los Angeles Times

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