More homeless people die in Orange County every year, and accidental fentanyl overdoses are a major reason why, according to a new county report.
In a 10-year span, the report found, the number of deaths of people left homeless has more than quadrupled, with 395 recorded deaths in the county by 2021.
In 2021, the report found that 36% of homeless deaths in the county were directly related to fentanyl. Another 8% were related to overdoses of other drugs.
“The rise in deaths among people who are homeless is concerning,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in a statement. “Most disturbing is the significant increase we’re seeing in fentanyl-related deaths.”
The findings have been released in a report by the Orange County Homeless Death Review Committee, commissioned by Barnes in 2022. The committee is made up of experts, including law enforcement officials, health officials, and nonprofit officials, to investigate the causes of death among homeless people in the county.
The commission’s report reflects what communities across the US are experiencing with the increasing and ominous appearance of fentanyl in street drugs. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention registered 1,615 US overdose deaths linked to fentanyl. By 2021, the number of deaths from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, will exceed 71,000.
The first report from the Orange County Homeless Death Review Committee, released Monday, shows the county’s homeless population has been significantly impacted by the growing availability of the drug.
The report found that the number of deaths has been rising steadily every year since at least 2010, but with a significant increase in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that year, 338 homeless people died, a 55% increase over the previous year.
According to the report, the number of accidental deaths that year also exceeded the number of natural deaths.
In 2020, 235 of the 338 recorded deaths were considered accidents. Seventy-six percent of those accidental deaths were drug-related, the report found.
The second leading cause of accidental death among homeless people was being hit by a vehicle.
The report also found that homicide and suicide rates among the homeless were higher than the national rate.
The number of hospital admissions has also increased in the past 10 years. While 727 hospitalizations of homeless people were recorded in the province in 2011, the number of admissions in 2021 will be 5,649. Mental illness was the leading cause, according to the report.
The commission recommended that the sheriff push for legislation that would expand the data legally available to the commission to investigate specific deaths. It also recommends that provincial agencies expand substance abuse treatment options and expand the availability of Narcan, the drug used to reverse fentanyl overdoses.
The commission is also asking to look at criminal laws requiring drug treatment programs as part of criminal sentences.
A study last year by the LA County Department of Public Health found that the number of homeless people in that county increased 56% in the year after the pandemic began, mainly due to an increase in drug overdoses.
In the year under review, 179 homeless people died from COVID-19, accounting for about a quarter of the increase in total deaths from the previous year. An increase in fatal overdoses was also the main driver of the increase. In the pre-pandemic year, the Department of Health reported just over 400 overdose deaths. In the year after the outbreak, that number nearly doubled to 715.
LA County’s numbers mirror those recorded in San Francisco over a similar time period.