TUCSON (KVOA) – So far this year, 46 people experiencing homelessness have died in Pima County.  Internet 3/23

The number of homeless deaths has been steadily increasing over the past few years.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Lisa Chastain of Tucson’s Gospel Rescue Mission said.

Chastain said she has seen the number of people experiencing homelessness continue to increase in Pima County.

The lingering pandemic has only made the situation worse.

Many have one thing in common.

“The majority of the people we see are either drug issues or mental health,” Chastain said.

For some, those drug issues can prove deadly.

According to the latest numbers from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, there were 125 deaths of individuals experiencing homelessness in 2020, the first year statistics were available. In 2021, that number rose to 158.

OME said more than half of those deaths were due to accidental overdose. In addition, about three-quarters of those who died were men.

“One of the challenges that we’re having right now is we’re seeing a lot of weapons,” Tucson City Councilmember Steve Kozachik said. “And we are seeing a lot of drug use.”

However, getting people into drug treatment is an ongoing challenge, even though it may be exactly what they need to keep them alive.

“It has to be somebody’s choice; we do have some people here who have been court-mandated and their lives have been changed,” Chastain said.

There is not one solution. It takes us all to combat this problem.


Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

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L.A. has great weather, yet more homeless die of the cold here than in New York

Esteban Velasquez, 54, tries to stay warm as pedestrians walk along South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles on a rainy day in January.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)


FEB. 17, 2019 8:30 AM PT

John D. Brider was found passed out near a homeless shelter and taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he later died.

Brider, 63, had gone into cardiac arrest and oxygen had been cut off to his brain. But another, seemingly improbable, factor contributed to his death last winter: hypothermia, or loss of body heat, from being out in the cold, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office ruled.

One of the abiding myths about Los Angeles is that homeless people come here from the East Coast or Midwest because at least they won’t freeze to death.

But despite L.A.’s typical sunshine and mild temperatures, five homeless people, including Brider, died of causes that included or were complicated by hypothermia in the county last year, surpassing San Francisco and New York City, which each reported two deaths. Over the last three years, 13 people have died at least partly because of the cold, the coroner’s office said. And advocates worry that this cold, rainy winter will mean more fatalities.

Hypothermia has led to more deaths in L.A. than in colder regions because 39,000 homeless people here live outdoors — by far the most of any metropolitan area in the country. L.A.’s generally moderate Mediterranean climate is no shield, because hypothermia can set in at temperatures as high as 50 degrees, experts say.

Going without a hat can drain up to half of a person’s body heat, and wet clothing can intensify heat loss twentyfold, according to a 2007 report from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Underlying medical conditions, alcohol and drug use — including the use of psychiatric medications — mental illness and the privations of living outdoors intensify the risk. Brider, for example, tested positive for cocaine and had cancer of the throat and tongue, the coroner said.

“Many people experiencing homelessness suffer from malnutrition and sleep deprivation, leading to some of them remaining out in the cold. Ultimately, sometimes they die,” said Bobby Watts, the homeless council’s chief executive.

L.A.’s hypothermia cases, first reported in the Capital & Main online publication, are a tiny fraction of the overall homeless death toll, which climbed from 720 in 2016 to 900 last year. But hypothermia is a particularly appalling , and preventable, way to die.

“The idea that people froze to death is really horrible; it is a shared societal tragedy,” said Jim O’Connell, founding director of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, who researches hypothermia among homeless people.

Cristal, 31, left, sits on a skid row sidewalk in downtown L.A. on a recent cold, rainy day.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city and county had added 1,607 new shelter beds in a year and expanded outreach. The county’s winter shelter program provides 1,200 extra beds from December to the end of March.

“The number of emergency beds for our homeless neighbors has increased each year for the last three years,” said spokesman Alex Comisar, “and we’re doing more outreach than ever before to bring people inside during inclement weather.”

But although most cold-exposure deaths occur in the winter, Mark Stuart, 56, died of probable hypothermia on a Long Beach embankment in April 2016 — after the winter shelters shut down. O’Connell says hypothermia is a particular risk when the temperature drops more than 10 degrees over the course of the day, a common phenomenon in L.A.

Jonathan E. Sherin, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, says homeless people with severe and persistent mental illness are in jeopardy of hypothermia.

Over the last six to eight months, the county’s specialized Homeless Outreach Mobile Engagement teams, with 30 staff members supported by a psychiatrist, have fanned out to remote encampments to find homeless people who need help, he said.

“I wish it were happening more quickly,” said Sherin, who hopes to double staffing in the next year or so. “It’s our highest priority.”

Some homeless people perished from the cold in public view. A 44-year-old man sat outside a business for two nights in January 2018 before someone inside the building called 911, the coroner reported.