New data from the San Francisco Department of Public Health released on Thursday found that the number of homeless residents who died in the city during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic doubled compared to previous years, with most deaths being linked to overdoses from fentanyl.
The research, conducted jointly by SFDPH and the University of California at San Francisco, showed that between March 2020 and March 2021, 331 homeless people died in San Francisco.
That number is about twice the number of years prior, with 128 homeless deaths in 2016, 128 in 2017, 135 in 2018, and 147 in 2019.
Overdose deaths linked to the synthetic opioid drug fentanyl accounted for the majority of deaths, or 82 percent, of the 331, according to the data.
Of the 331 deaths, 268, or 81 percent, were males.
The numbers also show African Americans make up a disproportionate amount of the 331 deaths, representing 27 percent despite African Americans only making up 5.6 percent of the city’s population.
None of the deaths were attributed to the COVID-19 virus, and according to city officials, efforts to house homeless people in hotels and shelters during the stay-home order may have contributed to this.
“Our findings highlight the severe vulnerabilities faced by individuals who do not have housing,” UCSF Chief of Emergency Medicine Dr. Maria Raven said in a statement on Friday.
“Death from the COVID-19 pandemic may have been avoided, but deaths from other factors known to impact this population disproportionately — drug use and violence — have increased,” she said. “Mitigating death among people experiencing homelessness will require a multi-faceted approach and a willingness to invest significant resources.”
Because 90 percent of those who died within the pandemic’s first year had previously used city health and social services, researchers were able to track their use of services. The researchers found that substance use services declined from 20 percent between 2019 to 2020 to 13 percent between 2020 and 2021.
“The pandemic has significantly impacted our delivery of care and services to people experiencing homelessness,” SFDPH Medical Director of Street Medicine Dr. Barry Zevin said. “We have been able to provide care and treatment to large numbers of people who were previously hidden. The key is meeting people where they are at.”
The full findings can be found at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2789907.