SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Their bodies were found on public benches, lying next to bike paths, crumpled under freeway overpasses and stranded on the sun-drenched beach. Across Los Angeles County last year, the unsheltered died in record numbers, an average of five homeless deaths a day, most in plain view of the world around them.
Two hundred eighty-seven homeless people took their last breath on the sidewalk, 24 died in alleys and 72 were found on the pavement, according to data from the county coroner. They were a small fraction of the thousands of homeless people across the country who die each year.
“It’s like a wartime death toll in places where there is no war,” said Maria Raven, an emergency room doctor in San Francisco who co-wrote a study about homeless deaths.
An epidemic of deaths on the streets of American cities has accelerated as the homeless population has aged and the cumulative toll of living and sleeping outdoors has shortened lives. The wider availability of fentanyl, a particularly fast-acting and dangerous drug, has been a major cause of the rising death toll, but many homeless people are dying young of treatable chronic illnesses like heart disease.
the first public study of homeless deaths in Alameda County across the Bay from San Francisco.
In some cases, bodies are left undiscovered for hours. Others are unclaimed at the morgue despite efforts to reach family members. In San Francisco, where people sleeping in cardboard boxes, tents and other makeshift shelters are a common sight, the body of a homeless man who died on a traffic median last spring lay for more than 12 hours before being retrieved. “Guy lay dead here & no one noticed,” said a cardboard sign left at the scene.
Those who sleep on the streets speak of the wear that it imposes on the body, of several untreated illnesses and the loneliness of being surrounded by pedestrians who ignore you.
Billy, a metal worker and carpenter from New Jersey who now sleeps in the narrow alleys behind Venice Beach in Los Angeles, constantly feels the reminders of his previous jobs. At 50 he has chronic pain from an accident while trimming trees, treating it with a jumbo-size bottle of Aleve he keeps in his backpack.
He has overdosed twice from heroin, revived both times with the drug naloxone, and has watched as friends have disappeared around him.
froze to death last year.
A key distinction among the homeless population today is the graying of the destitute.
Margot Kushel, a doctor specializing in homeless care, has tracked the rise of the average age of homeless people in the San Francisco Bay Area from their mid-30s three decades ago to their mid-50s today.
But even that rise in age does not tell the full story of their vulnerability, she said. Homeless people in their 50s are showing geriatric symptoms: difficulty dressing and bathing, visual and hearing problems, urinary incontinence.