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Homeless ‘dying without dignity’ in Los Angeles County: 3,000 in seven years

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - Anthony Aberasturi, Jose Bacerano, Martin Cabe, Tania Eberts, Robert Gonzales, Larry Hudson, Danielle Klein, Parker Lucas, John McIntosh, Bobby Palmer, Leopolo Tapia, Hector Vasquez.

HOMELESS DEATHS - Bob Erlenbusch is one of the authors of the “Dying without Dignity” report. (R.W. Dellinger)

HOMELESS DEATHS - Bob Erlenbusch is one of the authors of the “Dying without Dignity” report. (R.W. Dellinger)


These are just a dozen of the nearly 3,000 men, women and children who died homeless on the streets of Los Angeles County from January 1, 2000, to May 28, 2007, and who are named in the report “Dying without Dignity.” Based on statistics from the county coroner’s office, the 44-page document released in December was compiled by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness in partnership with the National Coalition for the Homeless.

During those seven and one-half years, some 380 homeless human beings died annually — an average of at least one person every day.

Most (85 percent) were male, but 409 were female. Four out of ten were white, three out of ten Hispanic and a quarter African American. Most (45 percent) died within the City of Los Angeles. One hundred and fifty-four, however, succumbed in Long Beach, 111 in Santa Monica, 55 in Pasadena and 48 in Hollywood. Almost as many died in the summer as in the winter.

The average age of death was just 48 for these homeless people, while the typical American currently lives to be about 77 years old. Some of the homeless died before reaching their first birthday, but others lasted well into their 80s.

Based on the average life expectancy of their gender and ethnicity, the 2,815 homeless individuals studied were expected to live 211,878 years, but only survived 135,528. So their lives were cut short by 76,350 years.

On average a homeless person lived 36 percent shorter than a housed person. As a subgroup, homeless Latina females fared the worse. Their lives were almost one half (49 percent) shorter than expected.

The leading causes of these early deaths in Los Angeles County were cardiovascular problems (24 percent), followed by “unknown,” substance abuse (22 percent) and trauma (18 percent). Others died of pneumonia, cirrhosis, infections and cancer. Heroin, cocaine, morphine and alcohol were the major drugs causing acute intoxication and death. Of the 502 trauma fatalities, many were the result of violence and suicides.

Since the researchers didn’t have direct access to death certificates, they believe their analysis might have “over estimated” the percent of cardiovascular causes of death and “under counted” deaths from substance abuse.

Moreover, the LACEH&H study points out that only about 17 percent of Los Angeles County’s homeless find shelter — the lowest percentage of any big U.S. city. In comparison, Denver shelters some 93 percent of its homeless and Philadelphia 97 percent.

“It is a disgrace that such a small percentage in L.A. is sheltered,” the report declares. “With no resources and, forced to live outside, in their cars and in abandoned buildings, it’s no wonder that hundreds of homeless people died without dignity in our community every year.”

Alarming findings

Bob Erlenbusch — one of the authors of the report, along with Whitney Hawke and Max Davis, who wrote those words — has worked on homeless issues for 24 years. Yet the executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness was still surprised — and alarmed — by some of investigation’s findings.

Even in Southern California, he would have guessed that more homeless people living on the street died during the winter months. But the difference in death rates across the seasons was marginal.

In addition, while whites were overrepresented in the homeless death stats, so were Latina women, and to an even greater degree. But the veteran social service administrator was most surprised and saddened by another finding.

“We calculated it out and people are dying every day for seven straight years at a rate of one a day,” he reports, sitting at a wood table in his 11th-floor office on Wilshire Boulevard, with a panoramic view from the San Gabriel Mountains to the gleaming glass towers of downtown.

“When we did the math about life expectancy being shortened overall by 36 percent, the number we came up with for the 2,815 homeless deaths was 76,000 years. I mean, it was just a startling number of lives cut short. And a lot of those deaths — heart disease, diabetes — were preventable if they were on medication.”

The number one reason why so many lives were shortened, according to Erlenbusch, goes back to the tragic fact that only 17 percent of the homeless are sheltered in Los Angeles County. The rest live mostly outdoors, exposed to the elements and lacking access to any kind of health care.

“Then you add on top of that alcoholism and substance abuse, and that’s a recipe to die pretty young,” he observes.

Local lawmakers lack vision

Los Angeles dwarfs other major U.S. metropolitan areas when it comes to the sheer scale of homelessness and number of people dying on the street.

Los Angeles County has about 80,000 homeless on any given night, compared to New York City, with the second largest homeless population, having 35,000 every night. And while Greater Los Angeles had 2,815 homeless deaths from 2000 to 2007, New York only logged 164 deaths from 1987 to 1994 (the latest figures available).

Erlenbusch believes L.A.’s daunting numbers alone seem to stymie local lawmakers, who lack not only the vision but the moxie to tackle the horrendous problem of homelessness in the Southland.

“I think that for many years their lack of will has been driven by stereotypes of whom homeless people are,” he says. “You know, ‘They’re all alcoholics and substance abusers and crazy.’ But I think, overwhelmingly, politicians’ eyes just glaze over at our number. It’s staggering.

“If they really took it seriously like New York, they’ve got to put up about $2 billion a year for the next 10 years to do what it takes to get people off the street and dying. And there’s just no political will to do that. There’s certainly no pressure. Where’s the pressure going to come from?”

The report makes seven recommendations. First and foremost, Los Angeles County departments, including the department of health services, the public health department and the coroner’s office, should conduct an annual analysis of homeless deaths. Such an investigation would study why homeless people are dying and then focus on how to prevent needless deaths.

Other suggestions include improving access to primary care for the homeless; supporting overdose prevention programs; promoting recovery; improving discharge planning from hospitals, jails and foster care; creating more permanent supportive housing; and raising the General Relief welfare grant from its current $221 a month.

With California’s $14.5 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2008-09 looming over Governor Schwarzenegger and legislators, however, Erlenbush believes it’s much more likely for state, county and city programs for the homeless to be slashed.

“What it means is more people are going to die on the street, unfortunately,” he says, glancing out his windows towards downtown. “If any other population was dying at a rate of one a day, there would be outrage in city hall. Because it’s homeless people, it’s just forgotten. They’re invisible.”

After a moment, he wraps his knuckles on the report. “Every life is precious and valuable,” he adds. “That’s specifically why I kept the names to remember those people.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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