Grim tally: Homeless deaths in LA double over last six years

Mortality rate outpaces rise in overall homelessness


More than 1,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County died from “sudden, violent or unusual” causes last year — double the number from just six years earlier.


These included homicide, overdose, even exposure, according to the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner. Crosstown examined coroner data going back to 2014. The homeless death toll has risen every year since then, including a 13% jump last year.


The rise in deaths is outpacing the overall rise in the homelessness.


Over the past five years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county has increased by 33%, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s annual count. During the same period, the number of homeless people who died by sudden, violent or unusual causes increased by 70%.


“Put simply, being homeless in LA County is becoming increasingly deadly,” the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health noted in a 2019 report about homeless mortality.


The report also found that drug or alcohol overdose contributed the most to an increase in homeless deaths. According to an analysis by Crosstown, drugs or alcohol were the primary cause in 12% of the deaths last year. Five percent of homeless deaths were caused by suicide. Six percent were attributed to homicide. 


“Addressing mental health and substance abuse is a huge part of what we do,” said Robert Brennan, communications director for the Salvation Army’s California South division, which works closely with the homeless population.


The fast growth of the homeless population in LA County, estimated last year at 58,936, could exacerbate the risk of violence. “When there’s an increased density in the homeless population, conflict and violence are much more likely,” Brennan said.


Coroner data also showed a gender gap in homeless deaths. Men outnumber women at a ratio of about two-to-one in LA’s homeless population, but they died at a ratio of more than four-to-one last year.  



California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed an overhaul of how the state deals with homelessness in his most recent State of the State address. His proposal included increasing access to mental health services through a Medi-Cal insurance expansion, the state’s version of Medicaid, and revisiting conservatorship laws.


How we did it: We examined data from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner on reports involving sudden, violent and unusual deaths in Los Angeles County from 2014 – 2019. Learn more about our data here.


Some death reports may be deferred pending further investigation, and causes of death are assigned after the investigation concludes. On rare occasions, the department may update past death reports with new information or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports are not always immediately available.


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