Homeless deaths in B.C. spike by 70% from previous year, report finds

Image: Megaphone Magazine

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Last week, Megaphone Magazine -- Vancouver and Victoria's street magazine and low-barrier employment opportunity for individuals living in homelessness or poverty -- released a report on homeless deaths in the B.C.

This report, which includes the most recent data available from 2014, reveals a 70 per cent increase from the previous year in the number of homeless deaths -- a number, the report indicates, that in reality is actually higher.

rabble spoke with Megaphone Executive Director Sean Condon about the report's findings and what action Megaphone is calling for from the provincial government.

This interview has been condensed.

 

This is the second edition of your report and it now includes data from 2014. Can you go back and tell me why you decided to conduct this research? Why is it important?

The issue of homelessness was something that we had been following for a few years in the magazine. Megaphone, of course, is sold by vendors who are experiencing homelessness and poverty so it's an issue that we're closely connected to. A number of our vendors are homeless or have friends and family too that have been homeless and have passed away.

I think this issue really resonated with us because when someone dies who's homeless it's an indication of a great failure that's occurred by government to not have brought this person inside before they died and it's really representative of a breakdown in services that need to be strengthened.

So what we're hoping to do by looking further into this issue is really highlight these tragic losses and quite preventable losses. We thought the best way to go about that was by doing some data research and compiling our own report because it was such a big issue that required us to look at some extensive numbers and compare it to other data as well.

That's what the impetus of the first report was and that came out in November 2014 and we followed it up this year with an updated version.

 

What were some of the most significant findings in the report? What are the implications of these particular findings?

First thing will be the most glaring statistic we got from this year's report was that we saw a large spike in the number of homeless deaths. They went up to 46 reported across British Columbia and that represented a 70 per cent increase from the year before.

It's also important to acknowledge that this is an undercount because of the definition that B.C. Coroners Service use for someone who is homeless and also some of the legislative control that legislate what the Coroners Service can investigate we know that the true number is higher. The B.C. Coroners Service estimates that it's roughly twice as high. That's obviously pretty shocking [and it's] pretty disturbing to see the numbers rise so significantly in one year.

On top of that there are some numbers that we can see continuing to persist that really show how dangerous homelessness is and that this is a health crisis. We know that the median age of death for someone experiencing homelessness is between 40 and 49 years of age and when we compare that to the average age of death in the general population in the province we can see that it's 76 years of age.

So homeless is literally taking decades off of an individual's life.

We also know that looking at the cause of death that the majority of these deaths are what the Coroners Service determines as accidental: manic moods, drug and alcohol overdose, motor vehicle accidents. Comparing this [accidental death percentage] to the general population it's only about 16 per cent.

Again, these deaths are largely preventable if the proper housing and health supports are available to people.

Last thing I think we're seeing is that what's happening is that homeless deaths are increasing across the province in every region. We saw some pretty big spikes in the Fraser Region but also in the north and the interior as well.

What I think we can see is that the issue around the housing crisis is affecting every corner of this province. More and more people are struggling to get affordable housing and they're finding themselves out on the streets. That's not just an issue that's occurring in Vancouver or Victoria anymore, it's happening across the province.

Many of these communities they don't have the proper housing or the necessary health supports or harm reduction services. So it's putting people in a very precarious and very dangerous positions and I think that's reflected in the growth in the number of homeless deaths.

 

You mention in your report that the B.C. Coroners Service doesn't release Aboriginal homeless deaths as part of its data. Is there a reason why not? What are the implications of this?

What the Coroners Service has told us is that they're holding back on the Aboriginal homeless deaths because they're working with the First Nations Health Authority right now to improve their accounting and how these deaths are represented in their data.

Initially, about a decade ago, they did release some numbers about Aboriginal deaths and then they stopped. At first it was unclear why and we were able to get some numbers updated to 2013 (we got those separately) and they showed that Aboriginal people made up 15 per cent of all homeless deaths, despite the fact that they make up just five per cent of the general population in the province.

Coroners Service essentially admits, as well, that this is an undercount because sometimes the challenge of knowing who identifies as an Aboriginal person there are some extra challenges with compiling some of this data.

It's definitely encouraging to hear that Coroners Service is taking these extra steps to improve how they're collecting and reporting on this data, but the fact remains we're still waiting for this reporting to occur. We haven't seen it yet. While I'm glad to hear that this is happening, I think we still need to see numbers and it's been a long wait to get better accounting.

 

You have a petition to the provincial government circulating that you're asking people to sign. Can you tell me more about what you're asking for from the government? How do you hope they respond to this report?

With this petition we're asking for a couple of things. One is to improve the data collection and reporting around homeless deaths in the province. To give full credit to the B.C. Coroners Service, they are doing the best reporting out of anyone in the country. No other coroners service compiles as much data as they do on this issue. But we still feel there needs to be a lot more done and that can only be done with proper funding from the provincial government.

The second is that we need the provincial government to step up and start creating more affordable and social housing. We can see that there is a desperate need for more housing to come. There's been some promises to build a few thousand units over the next few years and we know that's just not anywhere near enough.

It's estimated that there are up to 15,500 homeless people in this province and every day things get harder here. Housing prices go up, there's more pressure on affordable housing stock, it just continues to disappear at an alarming rate.

We need the provincial government to start taking immediate action now to get people off the streets, out of shelters and into safe and secure housing.

 

To read the full report and sign the petition to Premier Christy Clark and the Province of BC, visit Megaphone's website.

 

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She is now rabble’s News Intern.

Image: Megaphone Magazine

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