Long Beach saw a 30% rise in total deaths among homeless people last year compared to 2019, with one of the driving forces being drug overdose, data from the city shows.

In 2019, 54 homeless individuals died, with 12 of those related to drug overdose. Last year, 70 homeless people died, with 20 of them related to overdoses.

The reasons for the spike likely vary, but some say the increased presence of fentanyl, a powerful opioid used to treat severe pain, may be fueling the increase in drug overdose.

Paul Duncan, a Long Beach homeless services officer, said more people are mixing fentanyl with other illegal substances such as methamphetamine.

The number of deaths increased in Long Beach as the number of unsheltered homeless people—individuals not temporarily housed at a shelter or transitional home—also rose from 2019 to 2020, Duncan said.

In 2019, the city counted 1,275 unsheltered people. In 2020, that number jumped to 1,582. City officials are currently holding off conducting the 2021 count of unsheltered people because of the pandemic. The city is still counting people staying at shelters and transitional housing this year, according to Duncan.

One factor that could be driving the rise is that the city saw more individuals returning after being freed from incarceration to lessen jail overcrowding during the pandemic. When these individuals leave the jail system, they often have nowhere to go, said Duncan.

“We are seeing more people struggling,” he said.

Why are people overdosing?

Shilita Montez, an employment specialist with Mental Health America, works closely with homeless individuals. In her experience, she says, a lack of affordable housing and traumatic hardships from sleeping out on the streets can drive some to use drugs to cope.

“People overdose trying to feel better,” Montez said. “They are outside in the cold in the midst of a pandemic and they feel isolated, hopeless and ostracized.”

Montez said that transitional housing is helpful, but found that most of her clients—with many years of sobriety—were able to achieve staying sober mainly because they had a permanent home along with continued support.

“We need more permanent housing in Long Beach and access to that housing,” she said.

Montez said homeless individuals opt to stay in Long Beach because there is access to free food and social services. However, there is not enough permanent housing.

“They become stagnant and never move forward, simply subsisting on government assistance and the kindness of friends and strangers,” she said.

The county’s Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control said it would expand a number of rehabilitation programs to address the rise in overdose deaths.

From a mental health approach, Duncan said his team has focused more on talking to individuals about the traumatic experiences they may have had that led them to use drugs to cope.

“We don’t know what came first: Substance use forced them out of housing or they lost their housing and used substances to cope,” Duncan said. “A lot of people that use illegal drugs say they use it to escape or feel better in the moment.”

Focusing the conversation around the reasoning behind a person’s substance use, not just telling them to stop, has yielded better results for Duncan’s team. However, data collected by the city from the county’s coroner’s office show that the rising trend in homeless deaths related to drug overdoses isn’t showing signs of slowing down soon.

“The trend is somewhat continuing,” Duncan said. “Hopefully we don’t see it, but looking at the data it’s hard to feel like it’s going downward.”