People experiencing homelessness rest on a brisk October morning in Reed Park. (Madeleine Pauker)

Pastor Ron Hooks stood in Reed Park Sunday afternoon, delivering the closing prayer in a memorial service honoring homeless individuals who died during the past year. 

Behind the roughly 30 mourners sitting in front of him, people slept on blankets and sat with their belongings around the edges of the Downtown Santa Monica park.

The Westside Coalition, a coalition of nonprofits, public agencies and faith communities working to address homelessness, hosts an annual memorial for homeless individuals who have died while receiving services from organizations based on the west side of Los Angeles County, such as The People Concern or Venice Family Clinic. 

Last year, the memorial honored 27 individuals. Hooks, who founded the homeless services nonprofit West Coast Care, delivered a prayer Sunday in remembrance of 112 individuals — an increase of more than 300%. 

“I was shocked when I heard that number,” Hooks said, looking out at the small groups of homeless individuals seeking refuge in the park.

Westside Coalition director Darci Nivas said the individuals the coalition’s member organizations work with shouldn’t be dying on the streets in such high numbers.

“These people were all getting services, which makes this even more staggering,” Nivas said.

The dramatic rise in mortality was reflected in a report released Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which found that the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness countywide increased by 95% between 2013 and 2018, from 536 individuals in 2013 to 1,047 in 2018.

The mortality rate among the homeless population, which accounts for population increases, increased by 36%, from 1,382 deaths per 100,000 to 1,875 deaths per 100,000.

The leading causes of death included coronary heart disease and unintentional drug and alcohol overdoses, which were responsible for 22% and 21% of deaths, respectively. The average age of death was 51 years old — 22 years younger than the general population of the county.

Hooks said he believes that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more potent than morphine that has become the leading cause of overdose deaths nationwide, is largely responsible for the skyrocketing mortality rate among the Westside Coalition’s clients. 

“The only explanation I have is that we’re hearing stories all the time about someone who thinks they’ve got meth or something and it turns out to be fentanyl — and boom, they’re dead,” Hooks said. “It used to not be that way. The drugs out there right now are more powerful than they’ve ever been.”

Nivas said she thinks the growing death rate among homeless people who were connected to services underscores the need for more interim and permanent housing on the Westside, such as the 154-bed Bridge Home facility in Venice, which is under construction and will be completed by late this year or early next year.

“It’s taking us a really long time to get people into housing even when they’re meeting regularly with service providers because there just isn’t enough of it,” Nivas said. “That, in my opinion, is what has caused this number to triple.”

At a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said Measure H, the quarter-cent sales tax voters approved in 2016, is funding the construction of bridge housing, emergency shelters and motel vouchers. The problem, she said, is that the county can only do so much without federal assistance.

“Primarily because of national policy, we don’t have the ability to build public housing the way we used to,” Kuehl said. “We’re really on our own with this national government. There’s not enough money in this county to house the 60,000 people who are homeless right now.”

Hooks said building new housing is important, but not the only way to combat soaring death rates. Training law enforcement and first responders to better serve individuals struggling with substance abuse disorders will also have an impact, he said.

“I believe the system in Santa Monica is really good, because the police, the fire department and the lifeguards all have training and are working hand-in-hand,” he said. “If I was an addict and told an officer I needed help, they would never say, “that’s your problem, you need to figure that out by yourself.” If we’re all saying the same thing, we’re going to help people faster.”

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