Toronto Public Health begins tracking homeless deaths in city

Toronto public health officials launched a program on Tuesday to track the deaths of homeless people who died while not living in shelters funded by the city.

City officials want to gather data on all homeless deaths in addition to those linked to shelters

A homeless man lies sleeping on a downtown sidewalk during an extreme cold alert in Toronto. The city hopes a new tracking system will give them better data about homeless people who die outside of city-run shelters. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A man decapitated by a train. A man beaten to death in a bus shelter. A woman burned to death in a ravine. A man burned to death in a makeshift shelter. A person who died after a drug overdose. A person murdered on the streets.

These are how homeless people have died in Toronto, according to a street nurse.

Toronto public health officials launched a program on Tuesday to track all deaths of homeless people across the city. Currently, the city tracks only the deaths of those living in shelters that it funds. 

The new program is designed to give city officials a better understanding of the scope of the problem and provide them with better data to help make decisions about improving the health of homeless people.

The deaths are 'violent, never natural'

Cathy Crowe, a nurse, educator and activist who has worked in the area of homelessness since 1988, said current data doesn't tell the whole story.

"These deaths are violent. They are never natural," Crowe told reporters on Tuesday.
The new city initiative will track all deaths of homeless people across the city. Currently, the city tracks only the deaths of those living in shelters that it funds. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Toronto's acting medical officer for health, said the data is limited on homeless deaths but the problem is complex. 

"Until now, death data for homeless people in Toronto has been limited to those who were living in city-funded shelters. As a result, the scope of this problem has been unknown," Yaffe said in a news release. 

"This new data will help guide efforts to improve the health of our most vulnerable residents."

Toronto Public Health will administer the program, but about 200 health and social service agencies will participate. A web-based form will be provided to the agencies and the data on deaths will be verified by Toronto Public Health and Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner.

Data to be collected will include the homeless person's age, gender, date of death, location and cause of death, any Indigenous heritage, history of homelessness, agencies used by the person, and contact information for the person reporting the death.

The tracking system will focus on homeless people who die while living on the street, the home of a friend or family, at a shelter or other location. All data collected will be confidential.

"The information will be used to gain a truer understanding of the number of deaths in the homeless community and potentially identify year to year, seasonal, geographic and other trends related to the population," Toronto Public Health said in a news release.

"The information will help raise awareness of these tragic deaths and to respond with appropriate strategies to help improve the health of this vulnerable population, thereby helping to reduce health inequities in Toronto."

According to the city, 30 homeless people died in city-funded shelters in 2016. The number was 45 in 2015. 

The collection of data on all homeless deaths began on Jan. 1, 2017. The first annual report for the program will likely be released in early 2018.