Homeless people have died in Victoria at three times the usual rate this summer, says the head of a drop-in centre - and social service agencies are looking at the approaching winter with growing trepidation.
"The fact that people are dying on our streets is a major tragedy no matter what time of year it is," said Don Evans, Our Place executive director. "There are generally more deaths in the winter, so I hope this isn't a sign of things to come."
On Sunday, 43-year-old Thomas Theodore Fisher died after a portable heater in his makeshift camp caught fire. He's the latest of about 30 people from the street community to die since June from a variety of causes, such as infections, pneumonia, heart attacks and drug-related problems, Evans said. The death toll also includes one killing and a suicide.
Most of those who died were in their 40s, Evans said. "That's considered a senior on the street."
Without proper shelter, nutrition or medical care, infections and diseases thrive, he said.
Rev. Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, which provides one-on-one support for some of the most troubled members of the street community, fears the death rate will continue to rise. "Things are going to get worse. They always get worse in winter," he said.
Evans and Tysick agree opening Our Place daily and extending evening hours would help. But seven-daya-week service would cost about $600,000 extra a year.
Our Place offers meals, free clothing, shower facilities and classes, and is open Monday to Friday. Evans said a pilot project would see Our Place open a partial day on weekends. "It's not the total answer, but it helps."
Tysick, who takes coffee and doughnuts to people sleeping rough in the early morning, said about 15 of the recent deaths have been in the last five weeks.
When someone whose health is already compromised develops pneumonia or other problems, they have little to fight it with, Tysick said.
"We are working hard and doing a lot on homelessness, but we need to work on supports," said Tysick, who acknowledges some street-community members are unlikely to ever settle in permanent housing.
Homeless people have access to Rock Bay Landing shelter on Ellice Street, with 84 beds, and Sandy Merriman Emergency Shelter for women on Burdett Avenue, with 25 beds. More shelter beds are available during extreme weather.
But Tysick said another night shelter, open yearround, is needed for the hardest-to-house. "It would take a special shelter and special training."
Fisher's girlfriend, Laura Alexander, said he was unwilling to spend much time in shelters and, even after living in a suite, would return to the streets.
"He had a stubborn side. He didn't like people telling him what to do," she said.
Fisher was also reluctant to go to a doctor, even when he was ill, Alexander said.
The recent deaths have been hard on the street community and those who help it, Evans said. "There's a huge amount of grieving going on."
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