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Homeless deaths rise in Los Angeles in 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 19:  A police car stops near homeless people sleeping in their encampments in the early morning hours of downtown sidewalks on April 19, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Most homeless tents and improvised shelters are taken down at dawn, before their possessions can be hauled away by cleaning crews. A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled last week that a city law making it illegal to sleep or sit on city sidewalks cannot be implemented as long as there is a shortage of homeless shelter beds in Los Angeles. According to a study released in January by the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority, there are nearly 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County but only 9,000 to 10,000 beds available in homeless shelters, single-room occupancy hotels, and other facilities.    (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images
More homeless people are dying on L.A.'s streets every year.

The number of homeless people dying on Los Angeles County's streets rose in 2017 for the fifth year in a row. 

As of Thursday, the L.A. County Coroner data showed 805 people died while homeless in 2017, a 12 percent rise over the prior year. 

"It's heartbreaking to think of these people who die homeless," said Tom Waldman, a spokesperson for the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. "Homelessness is a tragedy anyway and it just increases when you see these numbers."

He said part of the rise could be attributed to the growth of L.A.'s homeless population more generally. Last year saw an even bigger jump in deaths. In 2016, 719 people died homeless in L.A. County, a 19 percent rise from the year before. A homeless count done in January 2017 subsequently showed a 23 percent rise in the homeless population overall.

Aging could also be a factor. The number of homeless people over the age of 55 went up about 17 percent from January 2016 to January 2017.

"You have to assume that people who are at that age and exposed to the elements and living on the streets, that it's a health risk," Waldman said.

The most common cause of death was "accidental," which includes things like drug overdoses, car wrecks, and fires. Natural causes followed closely behind.

There were also a high number of violent deaths: 51 homicides and 45 suicides.

L.A. officials are hoping that 2018 will bring better things for the region's homeless population. In the latter part of 2017, city and county officials began rolling out new programs and housing construction paid for with voter-approved taxes and bonds.

L.A. has also shifted its thinking in recent years to accelerate resources for those homeless people most likely to die on the streets. 

Waldman said the tools are starting to come into place to target the medically vulnerable. Recently, an outreach team in South L.A. came across a very ill man living in a bus shelter.

"He had a serious case of gangrene in his legs and they were able to get him into surgery within a couple of days and save his life," Waldman said. "But it's such a large population on the streets, you can't encounter everybody under those circumstances."