LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has released one of its first reports exploring how the pandemic has both directly and indirectly impacted the homeless. Statistics show a 56% increase in deaths among people experiencing homelessness between 2019 and 2021.
While COVID-19 was a major factor in the increase in deaths, drug overdose was the primary driver.
Jeff Chavez comes to The People Concern almost every day. Sometimes he’s there to check on available housing, others to get medication for Hepatitis C. But recently, he was there for an overdose prevention bag with Narcan, that he said he’s sure to use on himself or someone else.
“I’ve overdosed over six times already. I’ve been there already,” he explained. “Unconscious.. purple lips.. back of the ambulance, everything.”
Chavez shows where he almost lost his arm from the abscess that formed after shooting fentanyl, his drug of choice.
“Right here and it blew up like this,” Chavez said.
He said he knows it’s deadly. Living in Skid Row he’s seen it happen time and time again, showing a video of someone that died in an overdose in his tent just a couple of days ago. .
“His lips are purple and skin is grey,” Chavez said.
But even after witnessing that, Chavez said it’s worth it. Fentanyl and heroin are the only way he knows how to numb the pain. At first it was physical. His brother offered him something more effective after Chavez broke many bones in a motorcycle crash. But that was over 20 years ago.
Now, it’s more emotional pain he’s looking to numb. He blames himself for his wife’s death, wishing he had stopped her from doing heavy hits of cocaine and heroin at the same time. Chavez said now this life is all he knows. If he wasn’t here, he said he’d be shoplifting to resell stolen items for money, but he is looking for a way out.
“You don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been shot at, a lot of different things,” he said.
They’re the stories Sarah Hinton and Brandye Combs hear over and over again trying to make a difference as a case and program manager for The People Concern, one of LA County’s largest housing and social service agencies.
The two are providing overdose prevention supplies to homeless people in Skid Row, hoping to address what has become an epidemic in fentanyl use.
Fentanyl saw the most significant spike in overdose deaths between 2019 and 2021, according to statistics from the LA County Department of Public Health. During that same period, overdose deaths overall rose 78% among homeless people county-wide. Although fentanyl deaths saw the sharpest increase from 2019 to 2021, county statistics found that methamphetamine contributed to the highest percentage of overall overdose deaths across both years.
Brandye said they’re trying to get the people the help they need, but often, service providers find their hands are tied.
“It’s a larger systemic issue. We run into so many barriers and get why we see the population increasing,” Combs explained.
Brandye said The People Concern has been trying to find Chavez permanent housing for a really long time, but he’s one of many on a growing list as the demand far exceeds the supply.
“I been looking for a long time actually. After my wife died, I really didn’t have nobody,” he said.
He’s hopeful his time will soon come, like many others looking to kick the habit and turn a new page.