More of LA County’s homeless are dying. Here’s why

Photo: Scott Varley, Daily Breeze/SCNG. Daily News

The number of homeless people who died on Los Angeles County’s streets and shelters doubled in the last five years, rising to 831 deaths in 2017, according to a recent report.

Cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, diabetes, cancer, cirrhosis, severe bacterial infections and other treatable conditions were all listed as causes of deaths reported by the Los Angeles County Office of Medical Examiner, and released last week by the county’s Department of Mental Health.

The rise in deaths since 2013, when 458 homeless people died, comes as the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County increased for the same time period. In 2013, there were 39,463 men, women and children in 2013 counted as homeless. Last year, that number rose to 57,794, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority or LAHSA. The authority is planning a new count set to begin on Jan. 23 in the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Santa Clarita valleys.

At the same time, there has been a 28 percent increase in homeless individuals suffering from a mental illness from 2015 to 2017, according to LAHSA.

“While no definitive conclusion can be drawn from these data sets, it is important to realize that individuals with co-occurring mental illness and homelessness, arguably the County’s most vulnerable populations, may account disportionately for the increased death rates,” said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Sherin made the statement in a letter he sent to the Board of Supervisors this month, recommending that boardmembers ask legislators to seek state legislation to expand the criteria for those deemed “gravely disabled.”

State law defines “gravely disabled” as “a condition in which a person, as a result of a mental health disorder, is unable to provide for his or her basic personal needs for food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment where the lack of failure of such treatment may result in substantial physicial harm or death.”

In October, the board approved 12 of 13 recommendations focused on how to improve the network of care delivered by the Department of Mental Health. But the board at first backed away from the current definition of gravely disabled out of concern on how to find a lawful way to expand the role of social workers and law enforcement officers to be able to detain people with severe mental illness who refuse treatment, even if their lives are in grave danger.

A week later, Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to move forward with the effort with pressing state legislators. Supervisor Kuehl disagreed with the motion, however, maintaining that a county-sponsored bill could start out one way when it is introduced in Sacramento but later be reshaped into a different piece of legislation that could hurt people and thwart local lawmakers’ initial intentions.

But Sherin and other groups support the pressing for legislation, saying that too many homeless people with mental health needs are at risk of dying. The board directed him last year to work with lawmakers and organizations to suggest such recommendations on expanding the definition.

“In order to meet our ethical obligations to this population and our communities, it is our stance that the County should pursue legislation that would adjust the definition of gravely disabled to include individuals with serious physicial health needs that-like food, clothing, and shelter-are fundamental to wellbeing,” Sherin wrote in the letter.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved $50 million in funding for 10 new affordable housing developments. About a third of the 667 units will be for people with mental health needs and their families. Funding will come from various sources, most of it from money generated by the Mental Health Services Act, which passed in 2004 as Proposition 63.

The act imposes a 1 percent tax on personal income in excess of $1 million to raise more money for county mental health programs. About $1.9 billion is expected to be collected statewide in fiscal year 2017-18, according to Los Angeles County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, who authored the motion for the new housing. Construction could begin in 2019 and the supervisors wrote in their motion the county would likely seek 4 percent in tax credits to further fund the projects.

“The demand for more affordable housing, specifically to serve populations with special needs, continues to be a persistent challenge facing the County of Los Angeles (County),” Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl wrote. “This investment will facilitate the development of homes for thousands of Angelenos – particularly those dealing with mental illness – that are in need of affordable housing.”

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Source: Daily News