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More homeless people in B.C. are dying than ever, coroner's report says

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Deaths among British Columbians experiencing homelessness have risen dramatically in recent years, a report from the BC Coroners Service revealed.

At least 342 homeless people died in 2022, which is 75 more than in 2021, and 198 more than in 2020.

The report looks at recorded fatalities among B.C.’s homeless population since 2015. From that year to 2022, 1,464 people have died.

But between 2015 and 2020, the annual average was 143 deaths. For the past two years, the average count more than doubled to 305.

“It is gut-wrenching. It's difficult to see,” said Fiona York, an advocate for residents the CRAB Park encampment in Vancouver. “Why are these numbers so out of control, and not being not being addressed with urgency?”

However, she said it’s not a huge shock to see the numbers as high as they are. “We see it all the time, you know, in our work and on the street,” she said. “It's something that we see and live and know every day (as) people working in this field.”

According to the report, the highest number of deaths occurred in Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria. Across the years studied, 74 per cent of fatalities were among people ages 30 to 59, and 82 per cent were male.

The report defines homelessness as living outdoors, in a make-shift shelter, a parked vehicle, a vacant home or any other structure not intended for living in, as well as those staying at an overnight or short-term shelter, safe and transition houses, or are staying with family or friends for less than 30 days.

MOST DEATHS DUE TO TOXIC DRUGS

In 2022, 90 per cent of the deaths among homeless people were classified as accidental. Of those deaths, 93 per cent were due to unregulated drug toxicity—or 84 per cent of all fatalities. Five per cent died of natural causes, two per cent by homicide and 1.5 per cent from suicide.

In 2022, 2,377 people in B.C. lost their lives to toxic drugs. That means only 12 per cent of people who died from overdoses were homeless, while 84 per cent of homeless people who died were killed by drugs.

“The homeless population, so often, there is that stigma and that discrimination, and people are impacted differently when they have different life circumstances,” York said.

She said that calls to take dramatic action on the toxic drug crisis often fall on deaf ears, and those who do step in are prosecuted for it, giving the DULF compassion club as an example. 

“When a house is burning, sometimes you have to break the windows. Sometimes you have to do something that's outside of the box or outside of the ordinary. And that’s not happened. It's in fact, it's being pushed back against. And now we're seeing numbers like this, and these are the results,” York said.

COLDER MONTHS MORE DEADLY

The report says homeless people die more often in the fall and winter months.

The coroners service also differentiates between “sheltered” and “unsheltered” homelessness. From 2015 to 2022, those who were unsheltered accounted for 50 per cent of deaths, while 32 per cent were sheltered and 17 per cent were listed as unknown.

Advocates have been calling for a moratorium on evicting people from their tents until the weather gets warmer. In CRAB Park, park rangers show up every morning to enforce a city bylaw requiring people to pack up and leave during the day.

“It should be year round, but at least for the winter months, because recognizing those circumstances that it's raining, that it's winter, that we're in a cold country, that it's cold in those hours in the morning,” York said.

“They are exposed to the elements, they’re outside, there's nowhere to go all day long, you can't really just go into a community center or library with your cart and your belongings and everything that you own, every single day all day long,” she continued.

THE SOLUTION

York said there’s a simple solution to the death toll that could be implemented immediately: listen to the people who are most impacted.

“When we're talking about survival conditions for people, consider the impact of these decisions that are made at levels that are so far removed from the population. What impact are they having? What is that doing to somebody's life?” she said.

“Providing what's needed, rather than just saying, we don't want that to exist. We don't want that to happen. Let's make it invisible,” York continued. “You still have to meet people where they're at, and make sure people are safe where they are.”

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