By Amy Depaul
Photos by Gema Galiana
This story is co-published with Capital & Main, a nonprofit investigative news site. It was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
They live so differently from us that it shouldn’t be surprising how differently they die.
And yet, the places where many chronically homeless people spend their final moments are somehow shocking in their banality – public spaces we pass on the way to somewhere else: a parking lot, a dirt path, an embankment behind a high school. These are the exact locations, respectively, of where Alberto Gonzalez, Kenneth Baker and Rachael Mae Lane (in full-term pregnancy), died in Orange County in 2015 and 2016. (The above photo captures the place – Huntington Beach State Park – where 29-year-old Rafael Estrada Sanabria drowned in the Pacific last year with methamphetamine and alcohol in his system.)
Such ordinary places tell extraordinary stories of a health crisis and premature mortality amid surging death rates. In our affluent county, homeless deaths rose 74 percent in 2015 from the year before, reaching 188. Last year saw the toll rise to 201. Similarly, the homeless death count has risen in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Diego counties in recent years.
A significant contributor to the increase is drug overdose, which has replaced HIV as the primary homeless epidemic, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But another explanation is the historically unprecedented graying of our homeless population. Half of the nation’s chronically homeless are now over 50, and they suffer from accelerated aging – dying of ordinary conditions such as heart disease and cancer as many as 25 years earlier than the rest of us.
“Fifty is the new 75,” says Dr. Margot Kushel of the University of California, San Francisco, who studies homeless health and regularly treats middle-aged people for advanced geriatric illnesses.
With homeless life expectancy ranging between 42 and 52, and so many rounding this milestone, the time for meaningful intervention is fast disappearing. It’s thus more crucial than ever to shine a light on homeless people’s health, lack of medical care and the circumstances of their deaths.
The following 10 images offer unusually intimate, eerie portraits of the places, though not necessarily the exact spots, where homeless people spent their final moments in Orange County in 2015 and 2016.
Pedro Sajche Chan, 31, died after jumping from the First Street Bridge to the Santa Ana riverbed. Chan is one of eight people in 2015-2016 to die near the river, where the homeless population has mushroomed to as high as 500 people. Paul Leon, the CEO of the Illumination Foundation, a homeless assistance organization, remembers working the riverbed as a public health nurse more than a decade ago, when there were only a dozen people there. Now, Leon says, “You have a core of about 150 chronically homeless individuals. They’re the anchors.” Placing them in permanent housing will disperse the gatherings, he adds, and, “the sooner you start that ball rolling, the better.”
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