British Columbia·Photos

New report shows an increase in homeless deaths in B.C.

A new report by Megaphone Magazine says homeless deaths in B.C. are increasing, and getting accurate data remains a challenge for researchers.

BC Coroners Service doesn't track all homeless deaths and concedes true number could be twice as high

Loretta Sundstrom holds a photo of her daugther, Anita Hauck, who died after getting trapped inside a clothing donation bin. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A new report by Megaphone Magazine says homeless deaths in B.C. are increasing, and getting accurate data remains a challenge for researchers. 

Still Dying on the Streets looks at homeless deaths from 2006 to 2014. Based on data provided by the BC Coroners Service, there were 46 homeless deaths in 2014, the last reported year — an increase of 70 per cent from 2013.

"These deaths are a tragedy. They're preventable and they're unnecessary. And someone who died because they're homeless should not be invisible," said Megaphone Executive Director Sean Condon.

One of the deaths highlighted in the report happened just last September. Anita Hauck died after becoming trapped inside a clothing donation bin in Pitt Meadows.

Megaphone Magazine executive director Sean Condon says homeless deaths in B.C. are a tragedy. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Her mother, Loretta Sundstrom is raising Hauck's daughter, who is now 19 years old.

"She did a lot of work for a lot of people, you know? When I saw her here, I didn't see her as a homeless person. I saw her as my baby girl," said Sundstrom, who on Monday marked six months since her daughter's death.

"There was fellow homeless person who was really struggling one night, who was really cold, and [Hauck] climbed into a clothing donation bin to help get them a blanket and a jacket, and sadly she got stuck and suffocated to death," said Condon of the incident.

"Unfortunately, Anita's death is an example of how preventable these deaths really are, if there just had been the housing and a place for her."

Homeless deaths are preventable: advocate

Judy Graves, the retired City of Vancouver advocate for the homeless agrees that most homeless deaths are preventable.

"The overdose deaths are preventable, the suicides are preventable. We don't have to drive somebody so far down that they commit suicide," she said. "The deaths from infection are preventable."

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's former advocate for the homeless, says most homeless deaths are preventable. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We all bear the blame. Nobody should have to be in homelessness. It would probably cost everybody about an additional $20 a year on their tax bill to see everybody in Canada living inside, and we just need to bite the bullet and do it," she said.

Condon said the increase in homeless deaths is something seen in all part of the province, especially in the Fraser region just east of Vancouver.

"Homelessness is not just a Vancouver or Victoria issue anymore. It's an issue that we're seeing in every corner of this province," he said.

The report says that, in the nine years included in the research, 325 homeless people died in B.C., but the data relied upon from the BC Coroners Service doesn't reveal the true scale of the issue, as the service only investigates about a quarter of all deaths in the province.

Incomplete data

Condon said it was challenging to get the data from the BC Coroners Service.

"We've been asking for more data," he said, adding that it took a year to get a full picture of the 2014 numbers. 

"We've been asking for the province to provide stronger, more thorough reports, because if we don't have a full accounting of this crisis it makes it that much more challenging to come up with solutions and figure out how we can solve this crisis."

Barb McLintock with the BC Coroners Service acknowledges that the reporting of homeless deaths is incomplete. She said, based on a single study that was done in Victoria, total homeless deaths could be twice as high as the numbers provided by the coroner.

"Basically, we do think that, obviously, homelessness is an issue, homelessness is a big problem in this province, so that within the limitations of our legislation we do the best we can to track those deaths," she said.

"Section 2 of the Coroners Act is very clear and it tells us what we have jurisdiction to investigate and what we don't."

McLintock said that she can't think of a way to get at more accurate homeless death numbers without being overwhelmed with all the other deaths that aren't generally investigated.

"It's certainly an issue of concern," she said. "I've been told we do as well as anybody in Canada, or better, in terms of tracking homeless deaths as best we can, but we can only track those that are reportable to us."

"It's taken far too long to get this data. It should not be something that we have to scratch and claw at to get. It should become an annual report that the coroners service releases to the public and that the province addresses," said Condon.

"It's just been too hard to even get this information and that really just, to me, says that the province just doesn't care. They don't care."


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