100 people died while homeless in 2017, prompting calls for more coordination with local hospitals

The leading causes of death were drug overdoses, which accounted for nearly a third of all deaths, along with cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Leading causes of death were drug overdoses, cardiovascular disease, and cancer

Most of the deaths happened indoors, a new report notes, and the median age of people dying was 48-years-old — decades younger than the early- to mid-80s life expectancy of the general population. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A new report reveals 100 people died while homeless in Toronto last year — an average of nearly two deaths every week — and calls for local hospitals to share data with the city.

The report from Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, is based on the first year of data collection from Toronto Public Health.

"It reflects, simply, a growing body count," said Cathy Crowe, a longtime street nurse and activist.

Most of the deaths happened indoors, the report notes, and the median age of people dying was 48-years-old — decades younger than the early- to mid-80s life expectancy of the general population.

The leading causes of death were drug overdoses, which accounted for nearly a third of all deaths, along with cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Crowe said these findings aren't surprising to outreach workers, and will help "dispel the myth" that homeless people only die out in the cold on Toronto's streets.

Many often die within hospital emergency departments or intensive care units, she added, but the exact numbers aren't clear. 

"Legal barriers are preventing those deaths from being reported," Crowe said.

The report recommends that the Medical Officer of Health work with the Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) to coordinate data sharing on how many people experiencing homelessness are dying while in hospitals.

That was welcome news to councillor Joe Cressy, a member of city council's Board of Health. 

"If you are a homeless individual who is at a shelter on Davenport tonight, and you happen to be at a shelter on Sherbourne tomorrow, and then you're at St. Mike's [hospital] the day after — we're not tracking that person," he said.

Age of death of people experiencing homelessness, compared to overall Toronto life expectancy in 2017. (Medical Officer of Health/Toronto Public Health)

Healthcare, housing supports needed, advocates say

The city needs to work more closely with the province to provide health supports to people experiencing homelessness, Cressy added.

Most of the more than 60 shelters across Toronto don't have mental health supports, he said, which is a provincial function.

"We need to start embedding health care in our transitional housing and shelters so people can access the supports they need to move out of homelessness," he said.

People experiencing homelessness in Canada report serious barriers to receiving health care, de Villa's report notes, be it it lacking a family doctor, being turned away because of a lost or stolen health card, or having negative experiences with clinicians.

Expanding access to health and social services, including overdose prevention and supervised injection sites, are important steps, it continues. 

Toronto Public Health will also continue to partner with the LHINs in Toronto, which are responsible for health care funding. 

Aside from health care, de Villa also writes that the data compiled by Toronto Public Health can provide direction for other services, including housing.

Right now, the report notes, Toronto Public Health is working with the city's housing and finance teams on plans to address concerns surrounding homelessness, including the city's upcoming 10-year housing plan for 2020 to 2030.

Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, said it's crucial the city addresses the ongoing housing shortage and overdose crisis, otherwise the death toll could keep ticking upwards.

"More and more people are homeless each year," he said.

Toronto Public Health will continue to collect data on the number of homeless people dying in Toronto, the report notes, and will provide updates to the public every six months.

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca