Toronto’s home­less death toll star­tles pub­lic health com­mit­tee

While city coun­cil­lors ex­pected high toll in first year of record­ing, 70 deaths this year was a shock

Toronto Star - - SMART MONEY & BUSINESS - DAVID RIDER CITY HALL BUREAU CHIEF

At least 70 home­less Toron­to­ni­ans have died so far this year, most never reach­ing age 50, ac­cord­ing to new fig­ures that star­tled city hall de­ci­sion-mak­ers.

“Seventy deaths in a city as wealthy as ours is an ab­so­lute fail­ure on the part of ev­ery­one,” in­clud­ing politicians, Coun­cil­lor Joe Cressy told fel­low mem­bers of the city’s pub­lic health com­mit­tee Mon­day af­ter a pre­sen­ta­tion on the year-to-date statis­tics.

“I just don’t think we can claim to be the world’s most liv­able city as 70 peo­ple die on our streets.”

Ac­tu­ally, 46 of them died in­doors — usu­ally at an in­ner-city hospi­tal or home­less shel­ter — while four were recorded as dy­ing out­doors. The place of death was not noted for 20 oth­ers in re­ports given to pub­lic health by var­i­ous agen­cies.

This is the first year Toronto has tried to, as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble, record the num­ber of home­less peo­ple to die, along with in­for­ma­tion about them. If the city had used the same yard­stick as last year — re­ly­ing solely on city shel­ter in­for­ma­tion — only 24 deaths would be on the books so far this year. Coun­cil­lors ex­pected re­port­ing from so­cial-ser­vice agen­cies and oth­ers would re­veal a greater toll, but not one so high.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, the med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health, cau­tioned health com­mit­tee mem­bers that the sam­ple is lim­ited, more agen­cies and hos­pi­tals are still be­ing en­gaged to turn over their data, and 70 — 1.8 deaths per week — is al­most cer­tainly lower than the ac­tual num­ber of home­less Toron­to­ni­ans to die in 2017.

Fifty-seven of them were male, she said, and more than half the to­tal was un­der age 48. The life ex­pectancy for Toron­to­ni­ans in gen­eral is 79 for men and 83 for women.

“Be­ing home­less is ab­so­lutely a sig­nif­i­cant risk fac­tor for early death,” in Toronto, de Villa said, while not­ing gaps in the data.

For ex­am­ple, there is no re­li­able count as to how many of the 70 were In­dige­nous. Cause-of-death de­tails are also lim­ited, with a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent listed rea­sons in­clud­ing in­fec­tion and heart dis­ease. Fewer than half the deaths were in­ves­ti­gated by a coro­ner.

While a mi­nor­ity, the most com­mon cause, de Villa said, was drug over­dose. The full 2017 statis­tics, ex­pected to be made pub­lic in March, could help get an in­sight into the on­go­ing opi­oid and over­dose cri­sis.

The dead in­clude Pierre Gre­goire, 28, part of the Innu Na­tion from Labrador, who died Feb. 15 in a KFC bath­room from a sus­pected fen­tanyl over­dose. A Star pro­file of Gre­goire re­ported he was said to have walked away from a down­town drop-in cen­tre, where he was fed by wel­com­ing staff but told it was too full to al­low him to lie down and sleep.

Patricia O’Connell, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Sis­ter­ing — a 24-7 drop-in cen­tre for women with is­sues that make them un­wel­come in the shel­ter sys­tem — told com­mit­tee mem­bers two of her clients are also on the list of 70.

“You just got an award for be­ing a hotsy-totsy city, and we’re not deal­ing with our most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple. And we des­per­ately, des­per­ately need more shel­ter beds,” she said.

Coun­cil­lor Joe Mi­hevc, the health board chair, said the data should one day be ro­bust enough to help guide pol­icy-mak­ers and save lives.

“I hope that this isn’t a trend that says we are be­com­ing cal­lous to the re­al­ity of peo­ple dy­ing in our streets,” Mi­hevc said.

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