February 29th, 2024

Death toll among B.C.’s homeless rising, hit 342 people last year: Coroner’s report

By Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press on December 14, 2023.

British Columbia's Coroners Service is reporting a sharp increase in deaths among people experiencing homelessness. A tent is seen on the sidewalk on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, July 28, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VICTORIA – The number of homeless people dying on the streets of British Columbia is “staggering,” say advocates who brace for reports of more deaths daily.

More than 600 people experiencing homelessness in B.C. died over the past two years, an increase of almost 140 per cent, the B.C. Coroners Service said Thursday in a report.

A statement from the coroners service said 342 people who were homeless died last year and 267 died in 2021, a sharp increase in the recent annual average of 183 deaths per year.

“The number of deaths we’re seeing and hearing about is staggering,” said Grant McKenzie, a spokesman for Our Place Society in Victoria. “We definitely are feeling the impact of the increasing deaths.”

The coroners service data released in a summary report said 1,464 people who were homeless in B.C. died during the period between 2015 and 2022.

“We’re shocked but not surprised,” said Stephen D’Souza, Homelessness Services Association of B.C. executive director. “Shocked in just the staggering increase in the numbers of people who are struggling in our communities and who are dying. We can really see the impact of public policy that hasn’t met the moment.”

The coroners’ report said it defined a person experiencing homelessness as living outdoors in a makeshift shelter, parked vehicle, vacant home, or any other structure not intended for habitation.

It also included people staying in emergency shelters or temporarily with family, friends or at safe houses or transition homes.

Most of the deaths were in Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey, B.C., but deaths also increased markedly in Kamloops, Vernon and Nanaimo.

The report said 82 per cent of those who died were male.

The toxic illicit drug supply significantly contributed to the increase, with more than eight of every 10 deaths in the review classified as accidental, the service said.

McKenzie said toxic drugs are also contributing to homelessness.

“It just shows that this is an addiction pandemic that we need much better solutions for,” he said.

Government efforts to find housing for homeless people should also include addiction treatment options, said McKenzie.

Our Place Society provides more than 1,000 meals daily, 400 units of housing, transitional shelter spaces, hot showers, job skills, health care, education and addiction recovery services.

“With this addiction, when you house people, we need to get them into detox,” McKenzie said. “We need to get them into recovery. We can’t leave people in their addiction because that is a straightforward path to the death rate we’re seeing.”

D’Souza said the increase in deaths sheds light on the government’s failure to take meaningful actions to address the toxic drug supply that prompted the declaration of a public health emergency in 2016.

More than 13,000 people have died of overdoses in B.C. since then.

The B.C. Coroners Service issued a public safety warning Wednesday, saying preliminary results point to more than 200 toxic drug overdose deaths last month, with the average now reaching about seven deaths per day for the past seven weeks

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said B.C. was on its way to posting a record number of drug overdose deaths this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2023.

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