Deaths among homeless in Orange County jump 53 percent in 2 years

Michelle Melgar moves her belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works
Michelle Melgar moves her belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works "sweep" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Authorities say their aim is to move people out of the way of coming storms. Many homeless individuals have to scramble to find shelter and storage for their personal items to avoid being arrested for camping and having their belongings and animals confiscated.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC

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While the number of homeless in Orange County has risen little in the past couple years, deaths among the population jumped dramatically from 2013-2015. 

Data from the Orange County Coroner's Office show at least 181 homeless people died in 2015--that's a 53 percent jump from two years before, when records show at least 118 homeless died in the county. 

The coroner's data, collected by KPCC, suggest a harsh life on Orange County's streets, and inside the motel rooms and makeshift homes that provide shelter for the homeless. 

The oldest to die in the three-year period KPCC examined was a 93-year-old man who passed away inside a Studio 6 Motel in Cypress on New Year's Eve a few weeks ago. His cause of death is still under investigation. The youngest to die was a 17-year-old boy who hung himself with a sheet at an industrial complex in Santa Ana in June.

That's not counting an unborn child the coroner discovered while performing an autopsy on a 33-year-old woman who the California Highway Patrol found dead from internal bleeding in an embankment in San Clemente. 

“It’s tragic to hear about any homeless person who has died on the street,” said Karen Roper, Director of O.C. Community Services, the division that leads the county’s homeless prevention efforts.

While the data were illuminating, she said, they held no immediate answer to why 2015 was such a deadly year for Orange County's homeless. 

While deaths were up over 50 percent last year from 2013, a point-in-time homeless count conducted every other year showed a 5 percent rise in the number of homeless over the same period. 

Unidentified dead--known as Jane and John Does--were not included in the data. 

Natural causes, such as dying from health ailments, and accidents including traffic and overdose deaths, were the top two leading causes of death among homeless people during this time period.

“It’s a perfect indication of a whole population that’s out there that we are not addressing,” said Paul Leon, CEO of Illumination Foundation, a homeless services provider.

Illumination Foundation also offers housing and recuperative health care services for the homeless and poor. Leon said homeless people suffering from acute medical and mental conditions and severe substance abuse are falling through the cracks.

“This population requires a long term commitment to be able to house and take care of them,” Leon said.

Roper said the county launched last summer a coordinated entry system to survey homeless people and assess their medical fragility to prioritize those that need housing the most.

 “You go away from the traditional waiting list and instead you prioritize people based on their vulnerability,” she said.

At least 41 homeless people committed suicide over the last two years, according to the data, but people who live on the streets everyday say it’s probably more than that.

“I’ve seen quite a few suicides,” said Mark Arrington, 63, tapping his inner forearm. “People do this intentionally.”

Arrington has been homeless most of his adult life after spending several years in and out of prison for assaults. He hops between motel rooms and a tent at the Civic Center in Santa Ana.  

He remembers saving his homeless friend’s life after overdosing on drugs but Arrington said that friend eventually died last year from a heroin needle.

“The grind,” Arrington said. “There’s no fun here.”

Last September was the deadliest month for the homeless, according to the data. Twenty-seven people died. Although there were very few people who died of exposure, according to the records, extreme weather coupled with chronic health problems or drug use can become fatal.

Officials say more answers may come as coroner's examiners make progress. They have not yet determined a cause of death for most of the 21 homeless people who died in December. 

“To be able to look at the numbers and have an honest look at the data, is for us a validation of what we’ve been trying to say,” Leon said. “But also open up some eyes with the Health Care Agency, the hospitals and the powers that be to start addressing this.”