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Editorial: Proper housing can save lives

It’s no secret that life is hard for the homeless. Now a report indicates that life for the homeless is also short.

It’s no secret that life is hard for the homeless. Now a report indicates that life for the homeless is also short. We have made the case before, backed by many studies, that providing housing for the homeless saves taxpayers money, but we should focus first on saving lives.

A report released Thursday says the median age of death for a homeless person in B.C. is between 40 and 49 years, while the average life expectancy for the general population is 83.

The report also said that 47 per cent of the deaths of homeless persons in B.C. are accidental, while the accidental-death rate among the general population is 18 per cent.

On a per-capita basis, the death rate among homeless people is higher in Victoria than anywhere else in the province, says Sean Condon, author of the report and executive director of Megaphone, an advocacy organization that publishes a magazine and operates employment programs in Victoria and Vancouver.

When you consider the circumstances of many homeless people, it is not surprising that their lives are shorter than the median. Rates of drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness are higher than average among the homeless. Unable to properly care for themselves, they are more prone to a myriad of health problems that are often not quickly or properly treated. They are vulnerable to assaults and accidents. They are unlikely to have the benefit of a healthful diet.

While it’s not surprising, it should not be acceptable. If the death rate in a particular neighbourhood were found to be twice that of the rest of a city because of, say, toxic fumes from a nearby factory, action would be swift and definitive. At the very least, studies would be undertaken to determine likely causes and effects.

Asbestos fibres were determined to be carcinogenic, under certain circumstances. The use of asbestos has been greatly decreased, and billions of dollars have been spent in North America removing building materials containing asbestos.

Helmets for cyclists and motorcyclists are mandated because they contribute to a lower rate of death and injury; seatbelts in cars are required for the same reason.

If there’s measurable risk to life and health for a sector of the population, steps are usually taken to eliminate or mitigate that risk.

The higher mortality rate among the homeless is not attributable to a single cause; the problems are many. But any solution is made much more difficult if a person doesn’t have a safe place to sleep, a reasonable diet and shelter from the elements. Treatment and counselling are far more effective if the person receiving treatment has a home.

Homelessness is a beast with many tentacles, involving multiple levels of government, various departments and social agencies, making it a difficult issue to tackle. Efforts are being made toward more unified approaches that will increase effectiveness of solutions and reduce duplication of services. The more co-ordination the better.

There isn’t one magic pill that will erase poverty, but ensuring everyone has, at the least, basic shelter and an adequate diet would be a huge step in that direction.

When homeless persons are given housing, they tend to be more healthy, less prone to crime, more amenable to treatment for mental illness and addictions, better able to progress. Properly housed, they become less of a drain on public resources.

Supportive housing tends to save society money, but more important than that, it can save lives.

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