Homeless People in Los Angeles Are Increasingly Ending Their Lives by Hanging

From left, sisters Candice Russaw, Chanel Evans and Brandy Russaw remember their brother, 20-year-old Jacob Russaw, in photo, who died by suicide in 2018. Candice wears Jacob’s T-shirt, and Brandy holds his skateboard and wears one of his shirts. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

He was a talented skateboarder on the verge of landing a company sponsorship. Dressed in loud Hawaiian shirts or track suits, his shock of hair untamed, skater style, Jacob Glory Russaw practiced ollies and kick flips for hours at the Venice and North Hollywood skate parks or in the streets of east Hollywood. Then he made up his own tricks.

“Skating is my life,” the 20-year-old wrote on his Instagram page. “It’s like breathing it makes me feel like I can do something [in] life.”

But Russaw was also struggling. He was young and Black and living at a homeless housing agency, working his way out of a fractured upbringing. And he had lost his room there, something that even some of his skater friends didn’t realize.

They only learned after he died by hanging.

When two other Black men — Robert Fuller, 24, and Malcolm Harsch, 38 — were found hanging from trees in two Southern California cities this spring, their families disputed suicide findings. Black people are far less likely to end their lives than white people, and the hangings, in the midst of protests against police violence, conjured America’s ugly legacy of lynchings of Black men, which authorities sometimes labeled suicides to cover up for white police and mobs.

But further investigation turned up no foul play. Both men had a history of homelessness: Fuller, who had a previous suicide attempt, had lived on and off at a youth shelter in Las Vegas and was homeless in Reno before coming to Palmdale, where he died. Harsch had been living in a homeless encampment near Victorville.

And their deaths, like that of Russaw in 2018, fit into a surprising pattern. Increasingly, homeless people in Los Angeles and its environs are dying by hanging.

Over 4½ years ending in mid-June, 196 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County took their lives. In 2016, 40% of the suicides were by hanging; so far this year, it’s 55%, according to a Times analysis of coroner’s reports.

Many homeless people hanged themselves in public — on a freeway off-ramp or sidewalk, in an alley, field or vacant lot — but their deaths went largely unremarked.

“Homeless suicides have not been an issue,” said Mike Neely, former Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority commissioner. “I’m not sure people want to have that discussion; it goes to the heart of the neglect of people.”

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SOURCE: LA Times, Gale Holland