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Report examines deaths of people experiencing homelessness in LA in 2023

A Los Angeles cityscape is pictured. A report by the LA City Controller’s office found a rise in deaths among the city’s unhoused population in 2023. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Leyton Breese

April 25, 2024 8:43 p.m.

The Los Angeles City Controller’s office found that deaths among the city’s unhoused population in 2023 were caused in part by increasing overdoses and inadequate services.

The report, released by City Controller Kenneth Mejia, recorded that 900 unhoused people died in 2023, with 73% of those deaths occurring on streets or similar spaces. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to die from chronic medical conditions, mental health disorders or substance misuse, said Hilary Wright, a psychiatry resident at UCLA, in an emailed statement.

“The data is alarming and I anticipate the number of deaths will continue to rise as more cases are closed,” she said in the statement. “The mortality rate among people experiencing homelessness has been increasing since 2014.”

The report also found that the most common cause of death in 2023, which accounted for 75% of deaths, was listed as “accident.” Wright added in the statement that Westwood has seen people experiencing homelessness pushed out to other areas of LA because of limited access to public spaces and the impact of street sweeps.

“One of the primary risk factors right now is the fentanyl crisis that California is facing,” said Claire Smith, a third-year human biology and society student and undergraduate coordinator of the Mobile Clinic Project at UCLA, which provides health care services to unhoused populations in the greater LA area.

The report also found that a disproportionate number of unhoused people died in murders, with 40 deaths. While only 1% of the city’s population is unhoused, people experiencing homelessness accounted for 12% of the city’s murders.

Many people do not realize how extreme the effects of environmental weather are on the unhoused community, Smith added.

Wright said in the statement that LA County institutes policies that criminalize homelessness.

“These include restrictions in sitting, lying, or sleeping in spaces, bans on camping, begging, loitering, loafing and vagrancy in public places, restrictions on living in vehicles, and restrictions on food sharing,” Wright said in the statement.

[Related: Report highlights racially disproportionate arrests under LA municipal code 41.18]

LA City Council districts 1 and 14 – which cover Downtown LA, Northeast LA and Boyle Heights – experienced the highest number of deaths in 2023.

The city controller’s report found that Black people made up 31% of deaths among people experiencing homelessness, though they only comprise 8% of the city’s general population. Smith said the city is experiencing simultaneous housing and social service crises, which disproportionately impact people of color.

“Approximately 17% of our clients identify as Black, 25% identify as Latin, 2% identify as Native American and 25% identify as white or Caucasian, and we also have 4% Asian Pacific Islander and other identities,” she said. “There is a disproportionate effect that the housing crisis and the social services crisis in LA has on individuals of color.”

Kenneth Wells, the director of the Center for Health Services and Society, said in an emailed statement that UCLA has worked to support veterans with homeless experience and behavioral health needs, among other efforts.

“We have done a randomized trial of improving community partnership in addressing depression which had an effect on homelessness risk factor,” he said in the statement.

One effort to address deaths among unhoused populations is the Inside Safe program. Wright said in the statement that the program aims to emphasize continual connection by introducing connections to unhoused individuals, moving to interim housing and then moving people into permanent housing.

Research has shown that the Housing First model is more effective than the traditional continuum of care model for providing housing to unhoused people by providing rapid housing without preconditions, she added in the statement.

“We know that street sweeps negatively impact health outcomes,” she said in the statement. “They result in displacement from one’s personal belongings and their community.”

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