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
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.