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Eleven homeless people died in Prince George last year

Tent city for the homeless at the foot of Fifth Avenue in Prince George.

Eleven homeless people died in Prince George in 2021. That is up from seven deaths reported in 2020 and three in 2019 but down from the high of 12 in 2018. In the Northern Health region, 21 deaths were reported for 2021, up from 11 in 2020 and nine in 2019.

Preliminary reporting from the BC Coroners Service shows province-wide 247 deaths of individuals experiencing homelessness were reported to the agency in 2021, which is a 75 per cent increase in the number of lives lost in 2020.

“This report reflects the risks and realities that people experiencing homelessness face every day,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service. “We know that many are facing significant health concerns, including physical disabilities, mental-health challenges and substance-use issues. Additionally, as is also evident in the province’s housed population, the report details the significant risks associated with toxic drugs for those who are unhoused. My hope is that this information will help support positive action, both during Homelessness Action Week and beyond.”

During the 10-year period studied (2012-21), approximately 120 deaths of people experiencing homelessness were investigated by the BC Coroners Service annually. However, following a significant increase in the number of lives lost between 2015 (73) and 2016 (181), an average of about 153 deaths per year were reported between 2016 and 2020.

Individuals between 30 and 59 years accounted for 72% of reported deaths, and 83% of decedents were male. More than half of the investigated deaths occurred in either the Fraser (32%) or Vancouver Coastal (25%) health authorities.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of the investigated deaths were classified as accidental, and 87% of those accidental deaths were determined to have been caused by illicit drug toxicity. In 2021, 93% of all accidental deaths among people experiencing homelessness were identified as being caused by the illicit drug supply.

“The BC Coroners Service’s death review panel report into illicit drug toxicity deaths found a high correlation between deaths due to drug toxicity and persons living in poverty or experiencing housing instability,” Lapointe said. “Almost one-third of the 2,117 decedents in the panel’s protocol cohort were either living outdoors or in temporary shelters. This data in this release reinforces the panel’s recommendations: the urgent creation of a provincewide framework for distribution of safer supply; the establishment of clear goals, targets and deliverable timeframes to reduce the number of illicit drug toxicity events and deaths; and the establishment of an evidence-based continuum of care.”

For the purposes of the reporting, an individual experiencing homelessness was defined as “a person living outdoors, in a makeshift shelter, a parked vehicle, or any other structure not intended for habitation; or a person staying at an emergency shelter (overnight) or temporarily sheltered (suspected to be for less than 30 days) by friends or family, in a short-term shelter, temporary modular housing, safe house for youth, or transition house for women and children fleeing violence.” People residing in short-term shelters, safe houses or transition houses for an unknown length of time were included.

Additional key preliminary findings are below. Data is subject to change as open investigations are received:

* 50 per cent of individuals met the criteria for street homelessness and 33 per cent for sheltered homelessness. Males were more likely than females to meet criteria for street homelessness (51 per cent versus 44 per cent).

* Deaths occurred more often in the later months of the year. November (11 per cent) had the highest proportion of deaths, followed by August (10 per cent) and December (10 per cent).

* By classification, from 2012-21, 74 per cent of deaths were considered accidental, followed by 13 per cent classified as natural and 7% as suicides.

* The townships with the highest number of deaths were Vancouver (248), Surrey (127) and Victoria (99).

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