Two homeless die a week on Toronto streets

In 1986, a Coroner’s inquest into the death of Drina Joubert, a homeless woman who froze to death in an abandoned pickup truck in a downtown Toronto alley mandated that “the Coroner must keep statistics on all deaths that relate to homeless and unemployment.”

It was never successfully implemented.

Today, that picture is finally becoming clear: in the first three months of this year, 27 of Toronto’s homeless died. That’s approximately two every week. The median age of the deceased is 51.

This information, made available through a new initiative launched on January 1 by Toronto Public Health in conjunction with over 200 health and social service agencies, was the result of decades of campaigning for greater research and resources for Toronto’s homeless by various community groups.

“We have never had a definition for ‘homelessness’ that would apply to or trigger a death investigation.”

City councillors and community members tell VICE News that this initiative, while solemnly welcomed, is long overdue. The issue of homelessness has had flashpoints over the years, notably with the dismantling of Toronto’s now-infamous tent city fifteen years ago that evicted  100 people from their makeshift homes and sparked outrage and concern from activists and community members.

“It’s taken far too long,” said Councillor Joe Cressy who worked alongside Councillor Paul Ainslie to make the comprehensive data collection a reality. “It certainly is complicated, but complicated isn’t an excuse for not doing anything.

“The test of a city is how well it treats people, and the most vulnerable in particular, and I think these numbers show we’re failing.”

However, the data only provides a vague idea of what is going on across the city, as researchers still compile data points such as gender, Indigenous identity and cause of death. It’s unclear when this information will be released.

That information is crucial, as homelessness is intrinsically linked to such issues as inadequate support for Indigenous peoples, those facing mental health challenges, and refugees. The data will also address violence against women and the ongoing opioid crisis. The effort, however, is made even more complicated by the various jurisdictions — federal, provincial and municipal — that are responsible for different aspects of homelessness.

“In a way it gives confirmation to what our instincts were telling us.”

“Refugees are coming in in big numbers — some of them from the States — and they are taking up to 20 percent of the beds in our shelters,” said Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc. “But refugee work is federal work.”

Violence against women work is provincial, he continued, but says they are seeing no support.

From 2000 to 2005 the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario attempted to fulfill the mandate set out after Joubert’s death, but the data was deemed unreliable and the tracking soon ceased.

“We have never had a definition for ‘homelessness’ that would apply to or trigger a death investigation,” said Cheryl Mayhr, issues manager with the province’s chief coroner. “Homelessness was difficult to determine as there were many assumptions that went along with that label and that contributed to the unreliability factor.”

“In the last 30 years, we have grown frankly callus,” Mihevc said.

If the numbers continue as they have for the first three months of this year, 2017 would be the highest number of homeless deaths ever recorded in Toronto. But, without data from previous years, it’s hard to know how we got where we are today.

“In a way it gives confirmation to what our instincts were telling us,” said Cathy Crowe, a long time advocate for Toronto’s homeless and a street nurse.

In the same time period that the city saw 27 deaths, the church had only recorded 12.

For years, Crowe, other activists and volunteers from the Church of the Holy Trinity have tried to track the losses and provide remembrance with the Toronto Homeless Memorial. To date, they have recorded over 850 deaths dating back over 30 years, many as Jane or John Doe.

In the same time period that the city saw 27 deaths, the church had only recorded 12.

“These numbers are troubling,” said Keerthana Kamalavasan, Senior Advisor of Communication for the Office of the Mayor of Toronto, adding that the information will help the city better understand homelessness and how the city should deploy resources.

Community activists hope that these resources will address pervasive issues like mental health, addiction, poverty and inequality, improve Toronto’s shelter system and make housing more affordable.

In the meantime, the initiative remains a work in progress.

“We are in the early stages,” said Paul Fleiszer, Manager of Surveillance and Epidemiology at Toronto Public Health, told VICE News.

“The number of deaths may increase as we continue to receive reports and recruit additional agencies that report these deaths to us.”

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