Homeless Deaths on the Rise in Orange County

Homeless man begging for money

Photo: Getty Images

SANTA ANA (CNS) - Deaths of transients in Orange County have steadily climbed over the last decade with drug overdoses accounting for much of the increase, according to a report released Monday by a committee organized by Sheriff Don Barnes.

The inaugural Homeless Death Review Committee report showed 103 transients died in 2012, compared with 395 in 2021. The leading cause of deaths is classified as accidental, with most of those drug-related. Barnes said fentanyl has shown itself to be the most deadly drug in the increase.

"The rise in the number of deaths of people experiencing homelessness is concerning," Barnes said. "Most troubling is the significant increase we are seeing in fentanyl-related deaths."

Barnes also said "the rates of suicide and homicide among individuals in this population are significantly higher than national averages. What this demonstrates is people experiencing homelessness are subject to higher rates of crime and suicide. Mental illness among people experiencing homelessness may be a contributing factor to suicides."

The committee included experts from the Orange County Coroner's Office, which is part of Barnes' department, the Orange County Office of Care Coordination, the Orange County Health Care Agency, the Hospital Association of Southern California,  the Orange County Medical Association, and CalOptima Health.

In 2020, the county tallied 338 deaths among the homeless. In 2019, there were 217 transients who died. Going back to 2010, the county had 85 deaths in that population.

The average age of death for the transients who died in 2021 was 48.4 years old. Of those who died, 5.3% were veterans.

In 2017, the leading cause of death was natural causes at 47% with accidental at 36%. But by 2020, the number of accidental deaths rose to 54% with natural cases at 37%. In 2021, accidental deaths accounted for 59% of the fatalities and 28% were from natural causes.

Of the deaths recorded in 2021, 231 were accidents, or 58.5%. Forty- eight transients died from heat disease, or 12.2%. Twenty-two died from suicide and 17 died from COVID-19 while 11 were homicide victims.

Of the accidental deaths, 144, or 36.5%, were due to fentanyl in 2021. That dwarfed deaths from other drugs, which accounted for 33 deaths, or 8.4%.

There are legal barriers to diving deeper into data so Barnes has asked Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, to pursue help in Sacramento.

The committee recommended expanding services for drug addiction, including expanding the availability and use of Narcan, which can be used to stop an overdose death. The committee also recommended changes in laws to help drug addicts into treatment instead of incarceration.

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