Cities across the United States are witnessing an “epidemic of deaths” on the streets as the homeless population is growing in size and age and becoming more vulnerable to illnesses, according to a report.
The wider availability of deadly illicit drugs, especially fentanyl, on the streets has been a major cause of the rising death toll among the homeless population, The New York Times reported, citing official data and research.
Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Salt Lake City are among the cities where officials and advocacy groups have been especially worried by the rising number of homeless deaths.
The crisis is more acute in the state of California, which is home to a fourth of America’s 500,000 strong homeless population.
In Los Angeles County alone, an average of five homeless people died a day last year, according to data from the county coroner.
The county, which includes the sprawling Southern California city of Los Angeles, recorded a total of 287 homeless deaths last year, of which 24 were reported in alleys and 72 happened on the pavement.
But based on data from the handful of counties that report homeless deaths, at least 4,800 people died on the streets of California last year, a figure that experts said was a conservative estimate.
In Los Angeles County, the homeless population grew by 50 percent from 2015 to 2020. Homeless deaths grew at a much faster rate, an increase of about 200 percent during the same period to nearly 2,000 deaths last year.
“These are profoundly lonely deaths,” said David Modersbach, who led the first public study of homeless deaths in Alameda County across the Bay from San Francisco.
The death toll, staggering as it is, represents only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of people who draw their last breath on the streets of the wealthiest country in the world.
“It’s like a wartime death toll in places where there is no war,” Maria Raven, an emergency room doctor in San Francisco who co-wrote a study about homeless deaths, told the Times.
Officials concede that tallying homeless deaths is a painstaking process and in many places there is no public record of those who perish while homeless.
However, experts at the non-profit National Health Care for the Homeless Council estimate the total number of homeless deaths across America is actually between 17,000 and 40,000 every year.
In many American cities, the number of homeless deaths hiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as public health officials have been preoccupied with combating the coronavirus and medical facilities have been stretched thin.
Men in their 50s and 60s typically account for the largest share of homeless deaths.