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Greater Victoria homeless who died in 2013 remembered in service

A public memorial today will honour the lives of dozens of homeless people who died in Victoria this year — people such as Jim Shaw.
Jim Shaw, who died Dec. 12 at 76, had attended Our Place since it opened in 2007.

A public memorial today will honour the lives of dozens of homeless people who died in Victoria this year — people such as Jim Shaw.

At a private memorial this week that drew dozens of friends and outreach workers, the 76-year-old was remembered as funny, kind and cantankerous.

Fittingly, the service was held at Our Place, where Shaw had been a fixture since the hub for poor and homeless Victorians opened in 2007. His portrait hangs on one of the walls.

Today’s public vigil takes place at 4 p.m. by the whale mural at the corner of Wharf and Johnson streets. It’s organized by by the Committee to End Homelessness in Victoria, a group of community members and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, a service provider.

Shaw died Dec. 12 in hospital after years of heart disease and a spinal injury took their toll.

“He was in a lot of pain, but it’s still sad,” said Jae Johnson, a former outreach worker.

Services such as the one being held for Shaw are a weekly event at Our Place, where the cafeteria walls are covered with photos and paintings of those who have died — often much too young.

Rev. Al Tysick, who officiates the services, said he recently led five in one week. By his count, 120 people in the street community have died this year. He said there’s a wide range in causes of death and the ages of those who have died. In the fall, 11 people died from heroin overdoses when a bad batch circulated. Suicide, cancer and heart attacks are also common.

“The actual cause for many was pneumonia,” said Tysick, adding that illness was usually the last straw for those surviving with extremely vulnerable health and living conditions. “I just can’t help people get housing. They ask but the places and the money are not there.”

Studies show that people living on the streets and in shelters have a life expectancy between 60 and 65 years.

According to statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service, 53 per cent of homeless deaths between 2007 and 2010 were deemed accidental, the majority overdoses, while 24 per cent were of natural causes. In comparison, across all segments of society, 71 per cent of deaths reportable to B.C.’s coroner service were of natural causes in 2009.

“We have a lot of people dying before their time,” said Julianne Kasmer, a United Church minister who acts as chaplain at Our Place. “There is so much underlying grief here, the deaths are hard to process.”

The lack of health and housing supports are a big problem, she said, as is the reluctance to see homeless community members as people — with strengths as well as difficulties.

“Everyone should be acknowledged as a human being … deserving to valued and loved,” Kasmer said.

“I’m amazed at the people who come in here because of their strength, how they keep going and how they help others.”