Trudy Norman says the stigma of poverty takes a heavy toll among the homeless, among whom a death is most likely to be classified as accidental.
Between 2007 and 2010, 53 per cent of the homeless deaths recorded by the B.C. Coroners service were deemed accidental, the majority overdoses. Another 12 per cent were suicides and 23 per cent were from natural causes or disease. 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.
Norman, who was an outreach co-ordinator for Cool Aid for 18 years, says the stigma can be seen in how the street population is treated in hospital emergency departments, and by the police and passers-by.
It’s a vicious circle when there is not enough money for rent or food, said Norman, watching police cars slow down outside Our Place — the downtown drop-in for the street community — as officers scan those coming and going.
“It’s the criminalization of poverty. They can’t even sit on the grass. People have to conduct a portion of their lives in public that we conduct in private,” said Norman, who would like to see a national housing policy and welfare cheques that would allow people to pay rent and buy nutritious food.
Currently, a single person on welfare receives $662 a month, while the median rent for a bachelor apartment in Victoria is $685.
Heather Hobbs, AIDS Vancouver Island harm-reduction and outreach co-ordinator, said many recent deaths are related to poverty and the associated stigma and discrimination.
“In Canada, poverty is not inevitable,” Hobbs said.
“As a community, we have the ability to come together, care for one another and help prevent these kinds of deaths,” she said, pointing to a recent paper by the Public Health Association of B.C that says B.C. needs a provincial poverty reduction plan with timelines and goals.
Health care is improving, with the Access Health Centre on Johnson Street offering many services that would previously have necessitated an expensive and complicated visit to the emergency department.
New measures announced this month will expand harm-reduction services, case managers will track clients and a new outreach team will be on the streets in an effort to reach the approximately 100 people with the most severe addictions and mental-health problems.
“But the fundamental determinants of health are adequate food, adequate shelter and adequate income,” said Bernie Pauly, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Victoria.
For Rev. Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, part of the answer is more supportive housing. His dream is a 24-hour, ultra-low-barrier shelter — one where almost anyone is allowed entry — with separate showers and sleeping mats that are steam-cleaned daily.
Life and death on the streets
- Homeless population count in 2007, according to the Mayor’s Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness: 1,500
- Number with substance-abuse issues: 650
- Mental illness: 420
- Co-occurring disorders: 430
- People who used a shelter in 2010-11, according to the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness: 1,958
- Number of instances of people turned away Rock Bay Landing emergency shelter because of no available beds in 2011-12, according to a joint study by the GVCE and the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.: 3,284
Deaths in Greater Victoria
- Homeless deaths in Greater Victoria from 2007 to 2010, according to the B.C. Coroners Service: 25
- Homeless deaths in Greater Victoria in 2012, according to outreach workers: 41
Deaths on Vancouver Island
- Homeless deaths on Vancouver Island recorded by the B.C. Coroners Service in 2007: 12
- 2008: 12
- 2009: 10
- 2010: 7
Deaths in B.C.
- Total number of homeless deaths in B.C. in 2010: 34
- Male: 30
- Female: 4
- 50 and older: 9
- 49 and younger: 25
These were caused by:
- Accident (overdose, exposure, drowning, accidents): 16
- Homicide: 1
- Natural causes: 5
- Suicide: 7
- Undetermined: 5