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Housing and Homelessness

Deaths Among Unhoused Latinos Increased 69% During The COVID-19 Pandemic

The LA skyline as seen from Skid Row. There are tents lining one side of the sidewalk next to parked cars.
“When we look at the increase in fentanyl…folks are self-medicating and they are trying to survive in the streets,” said Ingrid Rivera-Guzman, president of the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles.
(Ethan Ward
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Deaths among Latinos experiencing homelessness increased by 69% since pre-pandemic, the largest increase among all unhoused populations, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

The department's third annual report on mortality compared deaths among unhoused people in the periods between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, against deaths between April 2020 and March. Deaths among Latinos experiencing homelessness increased from 486 in 2019-20 to 820 in 2020-21.

Drug overdose remained the leading cause of death among all unhoused people during both years, but there was a greater increase in overdose deaths among Latinos — 84%.

“When we look at the increase in fentanyl…folks are self-medicating and they are trying to survive in the streets,” said Ingrid Rivera-Guzman, president of the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles.

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Rivera-Guzman said one challenge for reaching unhoused Latinos could be language barriers and overall distrust of government.

“We are still reeling from the trauma from the Trump administration , and all the rhetoric and the fear that we experienced and I think a lot of folks are still under that impression,” Rivera-Guzman said. “I don't think the city has done enough to really ensure that folks feel safe to come and seek these services.”

Maria Catalina Sanchez, an unhoused woman, previously told LAist, that outreach workers often don’t speak Spanish, a barrier for some Latino people living on the streets who may struggle with drug addiction.

L.A. City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Kevin de León said the report is proof that millions of dollars and a network of systems intended to help unhoused people has let them down.

“It’s devastating for our city to lose so many young Latinos to homelessness,” he said in a phone interview, adding that unhoused people need places to live so they can access wrap-around services and there is a shortage in available homes.

“Even if you have bilingual translation or outreach workers, you don't have the infrastructure set up,” de León said. “We’re begging the county to provide the services they need so they can be on the pathway to recovery.”

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De León said he wants the city to establish a separate department of public health that can address the specific needs of the unhoused population bringing money directly to the city from the federal and state government.

Rivera-Guzman said it’s important to recognize the unique challenges Latino unhoused people face that cause them to fall into homelessness at alarming rates.

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“The cost of living, especially in Los Angeles, has increased so much and so many people are rent burdened where they’re spending more than 50 and sometimes up to 70% of their income on housing,” Rivera-Guzman said. “Latinos also work on front-line jobs, many of whom got laid off or face unemployment and don't have access to unemployment benefits.”

In response to the report, L.A. County said it plans to:

  • Expand and improve field-based, harm reduction-oriented substance use disorder treatment services with an explicit focus on reaching Latino and Black unhoused people
  • Increase distribution of naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses opioid overdose, to people experiencing homelessness living on the streets or shelters/interim housing
  • Expand and improve coordination of care and housing-focused case management for people experiencing homelessness with substance use disorders

According to the report, the overall number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness increased by 56%, from 1,271 to 1,988 deaths, between the two 12-month periods. The report also revealed that deaths among young unhoused people, aged 18 to 29, more than doubled in two years.