Nearly 1,500 unhoused people are estimated to have died on the streets of Los Angeles during the pandemic, according to a new report that raises alarms about authorities’ handling of a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Authored by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and a coalition of unhoused residents, the report analyzed the LA county coroner’s records to identify 1,493 cases of people who died between March 2020 and July 2021 on the streets and were probably unhoused. The most common cause of death was accidental overdose.
The authors identified people believed to be unhoused based on the locations of their death, including freeway underpasses, parks, sidewalks, dumpsters, abandoned buildings, bus stops, tents, riverbeds, railroads and encampments.
The 1,493 figure is probably an undercount. The coroner’s office only tracks fatalities that were “sudden, violent or unusual”. The data does not include unhoused people who were receiving medical care or hospitalized when they died. The count also excludes people who died while in shelters or cars.
In encampment communities that have suffered losses, some residents live in fear that their friends and loved ones could be next. “When pillars of this community die, it’s such a hard hit,” said La Donna Harrell, an unhoused resident and organizer involved in the report, who lives at a street encampment in the San Fernando Valley that has lost multiple residents to sudden deaths.
“We’re always hearing about this person or that person passing away and it’s a lot of heartbreak,” said Angie Campos, 36, who lives at the encampment in Van Nuys.
Dying young on the streets
The report presents the first detailed picture of deaths on the street during the pandemic, featuring individual stories of some of the lives lost over the last year and a half. The researchers found that:
More than 35% of the 1,493 deaths occurred on sidewalks. The next most common sites were parking lots (13%), alleys (5.7%), tents (5.6%) and embankments (3.6%).
The average age of unhoused residents who died was 47 years old.
Black residents made up 25% of all unhoused deaths, while constituting only 8% of the region’s population.
48% of deaths were classified as accidental, 19% natural, 13% as homicides and 9% were suicides. The rates of accidental deaths and homicides were higher among unhoused people than among the general population in that time period.
Nearly 40% of the accidental deaths were attributed to drug and alcohol overdoses, mirroring the sharp increase in overdoses in the broader population.
Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which produced the report, said the young age of death was particularly disturbing: “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. We’ve got to get serious about using that metric to understand the levels of impoverishment and abandonment here in the US.”
Researchers say LA county is on track to surpass the number of unhoused deaths last year. It recorded 630 unhoused deaths in 2014 and that figure has grown each year by an average of 16%, according to the report. There were 1,267 unhoused deaths reported in 2019 and 1,383 in 2020, and the coroner’s office said it has seen 1,300 in the first 10 months of this year.
The researchers say the deaths were particularly troubling because they came at a time when specific programs were put in place to protect unhoused people during the pandemic.
“When people are passing away outdoors and on the sidewalks, that is a failure of the state,” said Chloe Rosenstock, co-author of the report and an organizer with Street Watch LA, an advocacy group for the unhoused. The majority of deaths were not from “natural” causes and were preventable, she said.
In addition to the 1,493 deaths on the streets, researchers identified 418 people who died suddenly in motels or hotels who were probably unhoused residents living temporarily in hotel rooms. It’s unclear how many of the 418 people may have been housed in the rooms as part of Project Roomkey, one of the county’s signature efforts to protect unhoused communities during the pandemic, but the county has separately confirmed that more than 90 people died while in the program.
For the motel deaths, the researchers found that the average age was even younger, at 44 years old. Nearly 60% of those deaths were attributed to overdoses.
‘He meant the world to me’
The crisis in part reflects the dangers and difficulties of life on the street for people who are unhoused, who often suffer from serious health challenges exacerbated by the conditions of outside living.
But the fatalities also stem from inadequate and at times harmful government strategies that have failed to provide people with permanent housing and have focused on criminalization and clearing the streets, advocates say.
The city of LA has increasingly cracked down on outdoor camping over the last year, including shutting down two public parks, removing unhoused residents from the Venice Beach boardwalk and passing a new ordinance restricting sleeping outdoors in certain areas.
Meanwhile, efforts to get unhoused residents into permanent housing have faltered. City and county officials have argued that they connect unhoused residents to shelter or hotel rooms before they evict an encampment. But residents have complained about the strict rules at many of the sites, including curfews and limits on when residents can leave.
The majority of residents have not transitioned from hotel rooms to permanent housing, and advocates say that many end up in more dangerous situations than they faced before, with isolation from their networks compounding struggles with addiction or leaving people without help if they overdose. The treatment services in the region have not kept pace with the crisis.
One of the most high-profile encampment shutdowns, in March 2021 at Echo Park Lake, displaced 183 people. As of October, only four had received permanent housing, a county spokesman recently told the Guardian.
“We need more resources, and we need better resources,” said Lashenee Gibson, 30, who was living at the Echo Park encampment until it was shuttered.
Gibson said she and her husband, Arron, entered a Project Roomkey hotel in Orange county early in the pandemic, but the program did not lead them to permanent housing as they had hoped. They briefly stayed in a shelter after that, but they weren’t able to live together there and the Covid safety protocols were poor, she said, so they left and began camping in Echo Park where the others were gathering.
“They just keep moving the homeless around,” she said. “It’s unnecessary, and it’s a merry-go-round that just keeps repeating itself.” The programs available to them typically involved being housed with people facing severe mental illness who weren’t receiving specific treatment, she said, which can create a difficult living environment.
Gibson and her husband moved into another Project Roomkey hotel in LA this year, but stayed in separate rooms. In May, her husband died in the middle of the night, from an accidental overdose, she said. The program would not let her see his body or say goodbye. The two were not legally married yet and had planned to officially tie the knot the following week.
“They didn’t care,” Gibson said. “Maybe it’s happened so many times, that they were just like, ‘She’ll be ok,’ or ‘Oh, it’s another one.’ It was just a simple throwaway … But this person meant the world to me.”
Her husband, Arron, was 28 years old, and the couple had ambitions to run a meal prep business focused on healthy food. He was also an aspiring actor. “He was just always energetic and positive and making sure he always looked out for everyone else but himself,” she said.
Gibson recently managed to get placement in a two-year housing program run by a not-for-profit organization: “I’m happy to have my own home, but I’m waking up to no one to share it with me.”
Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (Lahsa), said in an email that Project Roomkey was launched to provide an immediate option for the most vulnerable unsheltered residents during the pandemic and to stop the spread of Covid-19 among the unhoused population.
The program, she wrote, was built around Covid safety protocols, relying on wellness checks and establishing minimal in-person contact. “While our funding for Project Roomkey did not include money for life-saving measures, we partnered with several organizations to offer participants health care and mental heath care, and we deployed Narcan at each site to prevent as much loss of life as possible,” she added. “Once inside, our resources and harm reduction model can help people regain some of the health that they lost while being unhoused. While some may pass on after they come inside, I think it’s safe to presume that there were a lot of deaths prevented because of Project Roomkey.”
“Experiencing homelessness negatively affects your health. It ages you ... It compounds your health conditions. You become sicker faster because you’re not getting the care you need in the first place,” Marston wrote, adding that deaths were frequent among this population: “The best thing we can do is get people inside.”
Living in fear
Harrell, the unhoused organizer at the Van Nuys street encampment, said the deaths in the encampments are hard on those that remain behind.
Harrell is mourning her friend Tony Goodwin, a 61-year-old veteran, who suffered an apparent heart attack in September. Goodwin had recently entered a Project Roomkey hotel, but was kicked out of the program because he missed curfews, advocates said.
“Tony was the one I leaned on. He’s the person I would go to at three in the morning when I was hungry,” said Harrell, who has organized vigils on the street for lost residents and helped set up a memorial with candles and flowers on the block. In addition to Goodwin, one other resident died unexpectedly while fighting cancer and another was hit by a car.
“There wasn’t one person Tony didn’t help here and a lot of people depended on him,” said Angie Campos, who had camped next to him. “People would steal from him, and he’d say, ‘They probably needed it more than me.’” One person on the street didn’t get out of bed for days while mourning Goodwin, she said.
Campos said that fentanyl was devastating unhoused residents struggling with addiction and that she wished there was easier access to treatment programs.
City officials, however, have used a new law to designate the street where Campos and Harrell live as a site where camping is outlawed. It’s unclear when the residents might be forced out and a spokesperson for the city council president, who is pursuing the clearing, said there was no immediate deadline for the removal of tents and that the office was focused on outreach.
“Authorities treat us like we are animals, like we’re a disease,” said Fernando, 43, who is living in a trailer on the block and asked not to use his full name. “They’re making these laws where we can’t sleep anywhere or they make us go to these dark corners. It just feels like they’re trying to get rid of us.”
Unhoused people struggle with addiction because they often lack access to correct medications, he said, adding: “People have nothing and addiction keeps them out of this reality.” He said it felt as if the local government didn’t care when people on the street overdosed.
The victims aren’t just random addicts, he said, but community members with friends and families mourning their loss.