At least 14 unhoused individuals in Los Angeles froze death in 2021, and that number is expected to continue to climb.
In a county known for having sunny weather year-round, unhoused individuals are dying at increasing rates due to “cold exposure.” New county data obtained by The Guardian shows that hypothermia fatalities have risen sharply in recent years. In 2021 alone, at least 14 people died due to cold exposure and hypothermia—at a time when other, colder massive cities saw exposer death rates of two each year.
Four of L.A.’s exposure victims died in hospitals while some others were found on a bus bench, a parking lot, a dried-up river bed, and an abandoned building. The dead ranged from ages 28 to 78, with Black victims disproportionately represented, comprising 43 percent of hypothermia cases, compared to nine percent of the broader population.
In a 2019 report, the Los Angeles Times found that more unhoused people die in Los Angeles due to hypothermia and cold exposure than in San Francisco and New York City combined, each with a reported two deaths. Since 2017, fatal hypothermia cases have risen yearly, with the death toll reaching at least 39 people.
While L.A. county does open winter shelters during cold spells, a report published by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which tracked unhoused deaths during the pandemic, found that these shelters aren’t always accessible. In one instance, residents from an encampment were moved into a shelter only for it to be abruptly shut down, forcing them to relocate to another shelter 12 miles away.
“Each time people go through this cycle and are sent back to the streets, they’ve lost social networks and personal belongings, they’ve often had to give up pets or been separated from loved ones, and so they return more vulnerable,” said Anaya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.
“There are times where you’re perpetually cold and whatever you do to try to stay warm just doesn’t work,” said Tanya Myers, who lives at an L.A. encampment with her husband and 21-year-old son said. “California is known across the country as the ‘land of sunshine,’ and people still believe it does not rain here. But it can go from extreme hot to extreme cold here. And it stresses our immune systems a lot.”
It is estimated that L.A., the most populous county in America, is now home to 69,000 unhoused people, including 48,000 living outside, although the county admits this number is well below the true figure.
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