HELSTON: Why is no one fully tracking homeless deaths in B.C.? | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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HELSTON: Why is no one fully tracking homeless deaths in B.C.?

Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for InfoNews.
October 21, 2016 - 12:00 PM



We have stats to tell us about imports and exports, what the employment rate is, and how many of us have post-secondary education, but we don’t know how many homeless deaths there are every year across the country, the province, and on the streets of our own communities.

No one — not police, not the coroners service, not health authorities and not social agencies — fully track the number of homeless men and women who die every year.

A portion are reported to, and investigated by, the B.C. Coroners Service, but many more simply become invisible statistics.

Data from the coroner’s service shows just three homeless deaths in Vernon between 2007 and 2014. Social agencies know this is simply not accurate.

Just ask Chuck Harper, a local chaplain and residential services worker. He’s personally aware of 15 homeless people who died in Vernon in the last year. Based on word of mouth, he says it could be as high as 20.

Harper was contacted by the coroners service a few years ago, after he was quoted saying there were 14 homeless deaths in 2013/2014. They asked him where he was getting his figures from. His answer? Because he knew 13 of the 14.

Why the discrepancy between the coroner and those on the front lines? It’s because the coroner doesn’t investigate deaths by natural disease processes when an individual is under the care of a medical professional. In plain English, that means if a homeless person gets sick, goes to the hospital, and dies there, the case will never be investigated by the coroner. They estimate that just half of all homeless deaths get reported to them, and that’s probably an overstatement.

The John Howard Society of the North Okanagan doesn’t track homeless deaths either, but says 15 to 20 a year is definitely in the range. Director of operations Kelly Fehr said this week "people are literally dying in the streets" due to a lack of affordable housing and appropriate wages.

You look at people like Kelly Fehr and Chuck Harper, and it’s hard to imagine how frustrated they must be. Harper, somber in tone during an interview this week, said it’s been a tough year to lose so many people he built relationships with. Think about it for a moment; he knows 15 human beings who died this year. It’s difficult to comprehend what a loss of that magnitude would feel like.

Imagine if you lost 15 friends in a year? You’d probably want answers.

If 15 construction workers, 15 nurses, or 15 teenagers died in one year in Vernon, there would be an outcry. Why not the same response for our homeless people?

The lack of any solid reporting on homeless deaths is problematic because you can’t get an accurate sense of the scope of a crisis situation without proper data. More than that, it’s a lot easier for government bodies to ignore a problem if they don’t have statistics staring them in the face. Look at the fentanyl crisis, for example. Deaths from fentanyl overdoses weren’t tracked either until people started making a fuss. Now, not only is it being better tracked, the epidemic is being acknowledged by governments and things are changing. We need the same attention with homeless deaths.

What we do know from the limited official data from the coroner is alarming. Considering statistics between 2007 and 2014, we know that homeless people are almost three times as likely to die by accidental means, and roughly twice as likely to die by suicide or homicide, when compared to the general population. The average age of death for homeless individuals is between 40- to 49-years-old, compared to 76-years-old for the general population. If you want to look at a really good break down of the data, check out this report by Megaphone Magazine. 

The coroners service explained this week they neither have the mandate, nor the capacity, to investigate every homeless death. Caught between the strain of bucketing resources on the fentanyl crisis, and the inherent challenges of tracking the homeless population, spokesperson Barb McLintock said they simply have no practical way of measuring the problem. Speaking bluntly, she said, "If anyone has ideas, we’d love to hear them."

There’s no question that tracking homeless deaths has its challenges. But it can’t be ignored, either. We cannot allow these vulnerable members of our community to simply disappear.

— Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for iNFOnews.ca.

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