We need an answer: why are so many more people living on the streets?
Last month, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority conducted their Annual Point in Time Homeless Count in L.A. County. Soon, we hope to have a better understanding of how the COVID-19 Omicron variant surge and the dual opioid epidemic are affecting homelessness here.
We know that California had the 5th highest unemployment rate in America due to the pandemic. Our state is a center for the leisure and hospitality field, where many low-wage earners are employed. Drastically reduced tourism and hotel business put many people out of work. Restaurant and school closures also hit low-wage workers hard. Meanwhile, the cost of rent in L.A. County continued to skyrocket.
The pandemic also increased social isolation and exacerbated mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety. A CDC study documented that emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts rose in adolescents, particularly among girls, during the pandemic.
In another study, participants who experienced COVID-19-related stress reported consuming more alcohol and a greater number of days drinking. Overall, 60% of study participants reported increased drinking during the pandemic. Among the homeless, the problem is often fatal. The Homeless Mortality Report issued by the Department of Public Health found that drug or alcohol overdose is the leading cause of death among people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County.
We also know that California has the highest overdose mortality of any American state – 6,198 pre-pandemic overdose deaths in 2019. Los Angeles County was ranked as number one in California for the number of overdose deaths in 2021 during the pandemic – 3,172 fatalities. This represents a staggering 63% rise in fatal overdose deaths here between January 2020 and March 2021.
There have also been fewer shelter beds in L.A. County. For example, the pandemic forced Skid Row shelters to “decompress” the number of homeless served by one half to two-thirds – pushing hundreds onto downtown streets. Fear of contracting COVID in homeless shelters has also kept many homeless people on the streets.
Together, all of these factors have ominously converged. Homeless encampments have increased everywhere. And it’s hard not to think that the increased number of homeless people in L.A. County and surging rates alcohol and drug deaths among the unhoused are not related.
Next week, we’ll take a look at how alcohol and drugs play a major role in homelessness.