London

London Homeless Coalition breaks its tradition of secrecy over homeless deaths

The London Homeless Coalition says 27 homeless people have died so far this year in London. It's the first time the organization has willingly offered a public tally of these deaths.

Twenty-seven homeless people have died so far this year in the city

Two men linger in an empty public parking lot behind the storefronts on Dundas Street in London's Old East Village neighbourhood in July. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The London Homeless Coalition (LHC) says 27 homeless people have died so far this year in London. 

"It is the first time we've made that public," Jaclyn Seeler, the co-chair of the London Homeless Coalition told CBC News Thursday.

Seeler said the reason the coalition hasn't shared the information before Thursday is because organizers were worried it wouldn't be shared in a "dignified way." 

"We are recognizing the community is asking for this information. Given the conversation that's been happening around the loss of lives, we felt that was important to share." 

Growing frustration among relief workers

That conversation has recently taken on a forceful tone with the formation of the Forgotten 519, a group of homeless advocates who have expressed their increasing frustration, not only with the sheer number of deaths among homeless people, but the way the issue is being handled by the city. 

Homeless people sit in an alcove seeking shelter from the July sun on Dundas Street East in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC)

The group threatened a hunger strike next month on the steps of city hall if officials didn't meet its demands on solving the crisis, which include an end to the dismantling of tent cities, more on-site support at encampments and the creation of more indoor space for homeless people. 

Mayor Ed Holder met with the protesters, but after talks didn't go so well, he said the city would not comply with the protesters' demands. 

The problem of homelessness and London's seeming inability to pull dozens of people out of desperate poverty has remained its biggest systemic and governance failure, despite years of economic growth that has led London to become one of the most rapidly growing communities in the country

Competing portraits of homeless deaths are similar

Along with its ultimatum, Forgotten 519 also published its own alarming estimate on the number of homeless deaths earlier this week, which it said stands at 34.

A man takes a rest in an empty parking lot in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"Our data isn't fully accurate," Seeler said. "Not all groups that have agreed to serve those who are experiencing homelessness have agreed to [be part of the count]. Not all people experiencing homelessness are connected to organizations."

Dr. Andrea Sereda, a physician with the Intercommunity Health Centre and a spokesperson for the Forgotten519, said Thursday she would rather focus on the similarities between the two groups, as opposed to their differences. 

"They don't always have a complete picture of the number of deaths on the street, none of us really do." 

"I think we can both agree that one death is too many." 

Still the difference raises questions about why the City of London leaves the responsibility of counting homeless deaths not in the hands of a government department, but with non-profit agencies, who, until now, have kept the information as a closely guarded secret. 

The City of Toronto, for example, keeps a data dashboard on homeless deaths organized by year, age, gender and cause. 

"I agree it can be done. I agree it's not currently being done in London," Sereda said. "As a professional serving this population, I would be thrilled to collaborate on an information system that would lead to the same data we have in Toronto, but the reality is we don't currently have that." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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