People experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area—unsheltered men in their 50s and 60s, particularly—died in record numbers in 2021 as deaths from overdoses, chronic and preventable illnesses, suicides and other factors averaged out to five unhoused people dying each day across the county. And it’s frequently in plain sight, on pavements and in area parks.
These lonely and largely preventable deaths of over 1800 people in L.A. County were a fraction of the estimated 4800 deaths of unsheltered individuals across California in 2021, according to a report from the New York Times this week. It’s now estimated that one in four of the homeless people living in the United States now lives in California and, in L.A. County, the homeless population grew by 50 percent in the five years between 2015 to 2020, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
And according to the Times, the unhoused in L.A. County are now dying at a rate that’s increased by 200 percent. For the most part, these are middle-aged men who are dying on the streets. Men—and particularly Black men—make up two-thirds of the unhoused population; according to the Times, a staggering 83 percent of deaths among homeless people in the county are men.
Pamela Prickett, a sociologist and author studying unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles, found with her research partner that remains of deceased men—those who died on the streets or otherwise—are more likely than women to go unclaimed. They also found that the rates of unclaimed deceased people go up during periods of higher unemployment. Fraying social ties throughout life and a lack of a social safety net in the U.S., as well as drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental health issues, are some of the major factors that are leading the unhoused to die and remain unclaimed, according to Prickett.
“I look at anyone going unclaimed as a kind of exclamation point on a lot of existing social problems and factors,” she told Los Angeles. “If we’re talking about middle-aged men who are dying alone, going unclaimed is a pretty strong, final exclamation point on that life. It really emphasizes their isolation and loneliness.”
Higher numbers of people remaining unmarried or without a partner, or of those who divorce and choose not to remarry, are increasing, she added. As people get older alone, they are more likely to die alone. For men, a relationship with their children and ties to other family members—functionally, a next of kin for the county to contact—become less likely over time as compared to women. Drug addiction issues, divorce, time spent in prison and unemployment are all factors that can lead to this path, she said. And many of these factors were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s pretty consistent research to show that men face harsher social consequences from financial loss — so that’s also going to be a contributing factor as we look at economic downturns,” Prickett said.
Now, homelessness is becoming a defining aspect of life not just in L.A. County but in other large U.S. cities, like New York and San Francisco, and is a key issue across many medium-sized American cities, including Austin, Denver, Nashville, and more. For many residents, avoidance of shanty towns and tent cities that have interbedded neighborhoods, both modest and affluent, has begun to dictate which they will visit.
While most cities have taken some direct action around the growing issue of unhoused Americans on their streets, the root causes of this tragic and ballooning epidemic have only been exacerbated as the pandemic ebbs and flows.
“We have a frayed social safety net. We have limited welfare opportunities. We have an aging population. We have gaps and Medicaid, in terms of long-term care,” Prickett told Los Angeles. “So this would lead me to believe that we’ll see more [deceased] people going unclaimed in the near future.”
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