Homeless Deaths on the Rise Due to Addiction and Lack of Access to Healthcare: USC Street Medicine Director

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Homeless deaths in Los Angeles are on the rise due to addiction and lack of access to healthcare, according to Dr. Brett Feldman, director of Street Medicine at the University of Southern California.

LA County saw a 56 percent increase in homeless deaths from 2019 to 2020—from 1,271 in 2019 to 1,988 in 2020, according to a 2022 report by the LA County Health Department. Drug overdose—the leading cause of death over both years—also spiked by 78 percent according to the report.

To combat such deaths, Feldman said—during a recent interview on The Epoch Times’s California Insider program—that he and his staff walk LA streets every week to offer medical care and mental health services to the homeless.

“If you’re … homeless and want medical care, either you have to go to the emergency room or you don’t get care,” Feldman said. “And so a lot of folks actually just don’t get care, which is why we see so many dying on the street.”

Feldman said he does so because the homeless often encounter barriers at brick-and-mortar clinics, including long wait times or concern their belongings will be stolen if they leave them to go to an appointment.

Additionally, Feldman said, many no longer seek healthcare because of previous negative experiences with healthcare providers.

“There’s been a lot of trauma related to healthcare,” Feldman said. “Many have been turned away from emergency rooms because they couldn’t provide proper identification, medical history … or a home address.”

Others, he said, are often cleared from the streets four to five times per week by law enforcement, often ending up too far away from their healthcare provider.

“Part of the act of street medicine is an act of reconciliation and healing because of things they might have experienced with either ourselves or our colleagues and other settings,” he said. “We often say that a lack of empathy is really a lack of imagination. Their lives are so much different from ours and we can’t even imagine what they’re going through.”

USC’s Street Medicine program offers diagnostic services and treatment of acute and chronic health conditions, substance abuse and mental health disorders, and HIV/AIDS, according to its website.

They also can draw blood and dispense medication on the street, provide addiction counseling, and refer people to shelter and housing programs.

Feldman said he recognizes different types of poverty experienced on the street.

“There’s more than just … material poverty. Of course, we want to give people housing and food,” Feldman said, “But there’s also the poverty of health—the physical illness or psychiatric illness or substance use disorders … and this spiritual poverty … [which is] feeling unwanted or unloved by anybody. A poverty that is deepened every time a neighbor or policy is made that pushes them around the city that they call home with no place to put their physical body.”

Feldman said his goal is first to establish a connection with those he encounters and then provide them with the same quality of care on the street that one would expect in a clinic.

“Healthcare is more than the office visit even if that office is under the bridge,” he said.

Feldman also called on politicians who legislate homeless laws to spend time on the streets themselves.

“I think policymakers [need] to spend time … and see the whole experience to help inform what needs to happen next,” he said. “If you want to solve homelessness, first you separate the person from their housing status. If all we’re doing is addressing the housing status by building homes…but not paying attention to the person that we’re supposed to be loving, we’ve missed the biggest part of the solution.”

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