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Housing and Homelessness

Deaths Among Young Unhoused People Doubled During The COVID-19 Pandemic

tents line the sidewalk along 5th street on a sunny day in Downtown Los Angeles. In the distance is the L.A. skyline.
“There has never been a period of time where we’ve experienced just more tragedy of young lives lost," said Erin Casey, program director for My Friend's Place.
(Ethan Ward
/
LAist)
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A study from the L.A. County Department of Public Health revealed that deaths among young unhoused people ages 18 to 29 more than doubled in two years.

The report compared deaths among unhoused people from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021 to the same time period a year prior.

Among the findings was that deaths among young unhoused people increased at a greater rate than their older counterparts. There were 175 deaths among unhoused people ages to 18 to 29 from April 2020 to March 2021, compared with 85 during the same time period from 2019 to 2020 — a 106% increase.

According to the report, the overall number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness increased by 56%, from 1,271 to 1,988 between the two 12-month periods.

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“It’s just tragic,” said Erin Casey, program director for My Friend’s Place, a nonprofit that works with unhoused youth. “There has never been a period of time where we’ve experienced just more tragedy of young lives lost.”

Casey said it’s particularly harrowing for unhoused service providers, who often build relationships with the young people they serve. She recalled how worried staff would check the LA sheriff’s website for arrests when a young person went missing for a few days. Now they also check the coroner’s website.

“Sometimes the coroner’s office is contacting us to let us know someone has died because for a lot of the young people we serve, they’re using our address as their official address,” Casey said. “It used to be maybe one or two people a year. These last two years it's been eight to 10 people.”

Drug overdose remained the leading cause of death among unhoused people both years and contributed to the rise in young people dying, according to the study. Casey said the primary cause for overdosing was fentanyl use — the drug of choice for many young people who use it to cope with the trauma of being unhoused.

“This is a loss to all the people who care about them, but when we’re talking about young people dying and this is our next generation of leaders and activists we’re just hemorrhaging so much of our nation's potential,” said Casey, who wants officials to rethink what counts as a vulnerable person.

Sometimes the coroner’s office is contacting us to let us know someone has died because for a lot of the young people we serve, they’re using our address as their official address.
— Erin Casey, program director at My Friend's Place

Casey said the current system of care centers on older people experiencing homelessness, especially when it comes to COVID resources. She said young people were left out of those resources because they were more likely to survive.

“With COVID, young people were forced further and further into isolation which exacerbated drug use and using alone which is how the overdose deaths kept rising,” said Casey.

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

  • Expanding and improving field-based, harm reduction-oriented substance use disorder treatment services;
  • Increasing distribution of naloxone to people experiencing homelessness living on the streets or shelters/interim housing;
  • Expanding and improving coordination of care and housing-focused case management for people experiencing homelessness with substance use disorders.
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But Casey hopes the system changes to stop making vulnerability solely based on age or medical conditions that young people don’t face yet.

“They will become the chronically ill and chronically homeless young people if we don't figure out early intervention and decide that that’s an investment that’s worthy,” she said.