The number of homeless people dying in Long Beach has nearly doubled in the past three years, and soaring overdoses caused by meth or fentanyl are a primary reason.

Last year, the city saw 99 deaths, up from just 52 in 2019, according to data from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office.

Some of that spike may be due to Long Beach’s booming homeless population, which has grown 74% since 2019, but the rate at which homeless people are dying has increased more sharply, up 90% in the same time period.

In particular, deaths involving meth and fentanyl have been rising steadily since 2019. In 2021, the most recent year where full data is available, drug-related deaths accounted for more than half the total.

“It’s been pretty alarming,” the city’s Homeless Services Bureau manager, Paul Duncan, said recently about the dramatic spike in fatal overdoses.

Similar trends are happening across Orange County and Los Angeles County. Locally, the spike is not surprising, according to homeless people, outreach workers and volunteers interviewed by the Long Beach Post. They described a pervasive sense that the drugs are more easily accessible—and more potent.

“It’s very, very available,” said Derick Ware, who has spent years living homeless in Long Beach. Conversely, help dealing with addiction has been hard to come by, according to Ware.

Ware cautioned against assuming that most homeless people are on drugs. In the city’s last survey, 34% reported they had substance-abuse issues. But Ware said life on the street and the difficulty of getting help can drive people to use.

“A lot of them, a good number of them is not on drugs, but there’s so much bureaucratic red tape and all that, they just give up and stay in their tent,” Ware said.

Those tent encampments become targets for dealers, who pop up with drugs that have more frequently been cut with the cheap but extremely potent opioid fentanyl, according to Ware.

“A lot of the homeless people, they say be careful who you buy from. Stick to your regular dealer,” he said.

Long Beach has tried to fight the wave of drug deaths by handing out fentanyl test strips to people who want to avoid getting an unexpected, potentially lethal dose of the drug. Duncan said homeless-outreach teams are also carrying Narcan, a drug that can reverse the depressant effect opioids have on a person’s breathing system.

But longer-term solutions, like treatment facilities and detox centers, are scarce, according to Duncan.

At a recent community meeting, he said there are “very few” detox beds available across all of Los Angeles County for anyone who doesn’t have insurance. For now, the goal is to just keep people alive while health officials try to improve the system.

“In the meantime, we’re out there making sure that we’re distributing as much Narcan as possible,” Duncan said. “We want people to stay safe. We know that if somebody ODs and is no longer alive, they’re not recovering.”

Before 48-year-old Edmundo Tarango overdosed at MacArthur Park last year, he had been making one last attempt at getting clean, his daughter Alexis said. But after years of her father living on the streets, she’d learned not to take his promises too seriously.

“I don’t want to hear your stories,” she would tell him. “Just show me.”

Years earlier, Edmundo had carved out a long stretch of sobriety while the family was living in Las Vegas.

Working at a Good Humor ice cream plant, Edmundo would bring his three daughters special treats that only employees could get their hands on. Alexis, the middle child, especially loved the discontinued strawberry-vanilla bar with a graham cracker in the middle.

Edmundo fell back into drugs while he was in pain from a weight-loss surgery, according to Alexis. Soon, he became addicted to painkillers and booze, she said.

A man wearing a laker jersey.
Edmundo Tarango is shown in a photo taken around 2016. Photo courtesy Alexis Tarango.

Around the time Alexis was 10 or 11, the family moved back to Long Beach, and within a few years, all three daughters moved in with friends or boyfriends, fleeing a chaotic home environment where mom and dad were both using.

With kids out of the house, Alexis says her parents’ drug habit worsened. Eventually, they separated and Edmundo chose to be homeless, but he stayed in touch with his daughters.

He would call them, write letters or see them at relatives’ houses where they’d catch up or he’d promise to get on track. Mostly though, they’d laugh, poking fun at Edmundo’s life on the street and chosen profession of being a “professional alcoholic.” He’d joke right along with them.

“He’d tell us, ‘I know life is rough. And, but you guys always have to laugh. No matter how hard your life gets,’” Alexis said.

Edmundo also had chronic lung problems and mental health struggles including bipolar disorder, according to Alexis. When his health worsened, he began bouncing in and out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Inevitably, though, he’d start drinking again and end up back on the street, she said.

On a 100-degree day last September, Edmundo died at MacArthur Park. Neighbor Mary Simmons, who volunteers helping homeless residents there, suspected the extreme heat played a part, but the coroner ultimately attributed it to the “combined effects of fentanyl and methamphetamine.”

It was the second overdose death at the park in just six months.

Long Beach is seeing more and more people like Edmundo who are living on the street with not just addiction, but with chronic mental and physical health issues, according to Duncan, the city’s homeless services manager.

“Those all put people at a higher risk of dying in unsheltered situations,” he said.

Most likely, those deaths are being undercounted, according to Duncan.

This story was based on the best available data from the Los Angeles County Coroner-Medical Examiner’s Office, but Duncan and Long Beach homeless officials estimated the total number of deaths in 2022 was at least 101. Other activists say even that number is low.

When Alexis got the call in September about her dad’s death, she says she was heartbroken. She’d long been clear-eyed about his addiction, but he’d taught her that you can’t turn your back on someone just because of their problems.

“That’s my dad,” she said. “I’m gonna love him.”

When Alexis agreed to speak to the Long Beach Post, she said Edmundo would’ve been happy to know his story was going to end up in a news article.

“I’m pretty sure he wants somebody to know we’re just regular people that struggle,” Alexis said. “And some of us make it out and some of us don’t.”

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.