LA’s heat wave is deadly for the county’s unhoused population

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A large homeless encampment sits in Culver City, CA, July 28, 2020. So far this year, more than 900 unhoused people have died in LA County. Photo by Amy Ta.

The historic heat wave that hit Southern California over Labor Day weekend was deadly for some of LA County’s unhoused residents. At least three homeless people died from heat-related causes on Sunday, Sept 6, the day that Woodland Hills set a record temperature of 121 degrees, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. In total, 19 people experiencing homelessness died during the long weekend — about double the average number of deaths for a three-day span.

On the deadliest day, Sept. 6, a total of 10 unhoused people died in LA County, according to information provided to KCRW by the medical examiner-coroner’s office in response to a public records request. Investigations are ongoing in six of those cases, and it could take weeks or months to determine the causes of death. Of the remaining four, three were determined to be heat-related: a 60-year-old man named Holland Harmon and an unnamed 77-year-old died from cardiovascular disease with heat exposure as a contributing factor, while an unidentified adult woman whose age is unknown died of hyperthermia. The medical examiner-coroner’s withholds names of decedents until they’ve notified next of kin.

On Monday, Sept 7, eight more unhoused people died, their ages ranging from 21 to 66 years old. Investigations into the causes of death are still ongoing in all but one of those cases, which was determined to be a heart attack unrelated to the weather.   

As of Sept. 9, 914 people had died homeless in LA County this year so far. Officials with the LA County Department of Public Health say that reflects both a growing number of people losing housing in the region and the increasing deadliness of homelessness itself.