In January 2018, Pocoro Javier Martinez laid down at a bus stop in Highland Park and never stood up again. He was only in his 50s; he was experiencing homelessness. The police said that he died of natural causes.
Martinez’s story isn’t rare. Death tolls among Los Angeles’ homeless population are on the rise, with a reported 831 deaths in 2017. That’s a 12% increase from the previous year.
Meg Shimatsu is one of the luckier ones, but only if you consider it “lucky” that she’s still alive.
Shimatsu is a Los Angeles-native. She has a college education and before falling into homelessness she also had a good job and an apartment in Cheviot Hills. As with many of the stories you’ll hear, her decline into homelessness didn’t happen overnight. It started with diabetes that eventually advanced into full-blown kidney failure. Work was hard to find and it didn’t help that her energy was depleted thanks to ongoing dialysis treatment.
She was surviving on her medical disability income, but it wasn’t enough. She lost her apartment and bounced around between friend’s couches and low-rent motels before eventually finding herself living out of her 27-year-old car.
Whether homelessness happens because of a health issue or it leads to medical crises — even loss of life — it’s clear that there’s a connection.
A 2016 article from The Atlantic explained it well: “The connection between housing and health is coldly logical. The sick and vulnerable become homeless, and the homeless become sicker and more vulnerable. Although the tipping point is often the loss of a job, sickness or injury often precede it. Sickness and injuries make holding a job difficult, which leads to income declining and homelessness for those without a safety net.”
In fact, homes are so important to health that while the average American will live to be 78, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council reports that someone experiencing chronic homelessness can only expect to survive to 50. That’s the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900.
If you understand the circumstances that homeless individuals must battle to survive on a daily basis, you might be less surprised that their health is quick to decline. These are things we take for granted: having a clean bed, access to healthy — or even just enough — food, support from a doctor before ailments get out of hand, or shelter from the elements. The list could go on for pages.
Homelessness is an issue that’s perpetuated by an individual’s circumstances, by their habits, and frequently by a lack of support from family, friends, or their city. And it’s an issue that subsequently exacerbates problems that a housed individual would have better resources and energy to handle.
Juan King knows first-hand just how vicious that cycle can be. He grew up in a working-class family in Altadena and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. But after his brother, Rodney King, was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1992, the glare of the media’s attention caused his addiction to spiral out of control.
Juan was homeless for 27 years and it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with stage III prostate cancer that he was able to get off of the streets and into a home for good.
“For me, it was the happiest, uncertain, confused day of my life. I was kind of shocked. But it’s a beautiful thing to be here inside. It’s a haven, it’s safe, and I feel confident in the things I need to do,” he said.
Juan spent two years in transitional housing. He found a full-time job and even trained to become a CSH! Speak Up Advocate, where he uses his voice and his experience to bring awareness to homelessness on a national scale. He now owns a home with his girlfriend in Palmdale.
The fight to end homelessness in L.A. County isn’t just about getting everyone into the warmth and safety of a home. It’s about saving lives of the humans that die on the streets every day. It’s about helping people like Pocoro, about saving individuals who are three times more likely to die than the general population around them. We can and will end homelessness for good — we just need your support to get there.
To learn more about how you can help Los Angeles residents experiencing homelessness, visit unitedwayla.org.