Toronto Public Health will begin tracking the deaths of homeless Torontonians on Jan. 1, 2017, following an April decision by city council.

Right now, the city only tracks deaths in its own shelters, of which there have been 247 between 2007 and November 2016.

That data provides an incomplete picture of homeless mortality rates in the city, Toronto Public Health spokesman Paul Fleiszer said in an email.

"This initiative will provide … solid evidence on which to base efforts to improve the health of this vulnerable population," wrote Fleiszer.

The tracking program will receive data from "approximately 200 health and social service agencies that support homeless people," according to Fleiszer, as well as the Ontario coroner's office.

Initially, the program will gather data including age, gender, date, location and cause of death, with the possibility for more data collection in the future.

Improving life for Toronto's homeless

"Even with that information, we're going to see some patterns that may be useful," said Lorie Steer, director of housing and homeless services at St. Stephen's Community House.

Steer said the information TPH plans to gather could be used to improve treatment of homeless Torontonians in hospital emergency rooms, as well as to enhance primary care, housing policy and mental health treatment.

"Most important, we should collect the information just so there's a better sense of how many people are dying," said Steer.

"I think it's quite alarming, actually, and people have a right to know."

"Now that we're going to be counting them, I want to see attention to the prevention of the deaths."  - Cathy Crowe, street nurse

The motion, adopted by city council on Apr. 1 by a vote of 36 to one, called for improved data collection on homeless deaths as a way of providing "the required information to several governing bodies helping to identify areas in policies and legislation which need to be improved."

"If all these deaths are not counted, it becomes impossible to implement the required needs," reads the motion put forward by Coun. Paul Ainslie.

Ainslie's motion cited a February, 2016 Toronto Star story, "Ontario's uncounted homeless dead," which highlighted the lack of official record-keeping for homeless deaths in the province.

'Long time coming'

Street nurse Cathy Crowe gives Ainslie credit for pushing forward with an idea that has been a "very, very long time coming."

"It's strange to call it a victory, but it is," said Crowe, who recalled a previous pilot program to track homeless deaths "that wasn't done very well."

"I think it's going to be really, really important," said Crowe, "because they're not just going to count the numbers [of deaths]." 

There may be more qualitative data that might lead to action on other homeless issues at city hall, she said.

Cathy Crowe

Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe says official tracking of homeless deaths in the city has been "a very, very long time coming." (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

Crowe points out that homeless advocates in Toronto have been unofficially tracking homeless deaths for decades. The Toronto Homeless Memorial at The Church of the Holy Trinity lists the names of at least 850 homeless people who have died since 1985, she said.

From her experience working on the streets, Crowe believes that between two and four homeless people die monthly in Toronto — although she warns that's just a "modest estimation."

"At times it's even as high as 10," she said.

But Crowe believes tracking homeless mortality should be just the beginning of Toronto's efforts.

"Now that we're going to be counting them, I want to see attention to the prevention of the deaths," she said.