Make data on homeless deaths public

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Toronto Public Health should release all of its data. It might just help to prevent further deaths on our streets.
July 31, 2017.   By

On Jan. 13, 2015, fire tore through a makeshift hut in Scarborough where Grant Faulkner, a homeless man, was sleeping. We know that he died trying to stay warm with a propane heater. What we don’t know is why he was sleeping in the hut.

Was he turned away from a shelter that was full? Did he have mental health issues that had gone untreated? What might be done differently in the future to avoid similar outcomes?

The murkiness of the details surrounding Faulkner’s death is not unusual. Advocates for the homeless in this city have long complained that they lack the information they need to help develop policy solutions or to hold government to account.

For years, that was because the city wasn’t rigorously tracking homeless deaths. But in January, Toronto Public Health finally started to gather robust data. Now the issue is that the organization is sharing very little of it.

The city should release not just the number of homeless deaths, as it recently did for the first time, but other information it now collects, too, such as on gender, unofficial cause of death, and location of death.

What is known from the minimal data Toronto Public Health released this week is that it’s dangerous to be homeless in Toronto.

In the first six months of 2017, 46 homeless people have died — almost two per week — and their median age is only 50, though life expectancy in Toronto is approximately 80 years.

As street nurse Cathy Crowe told the Star’s Kenyon Wallace and Mary Ormsby, the latest statistics suggest “that some very, very young people died, and that’s not normal. It’s scary.”

Yet, as in the case of Faulkner, we know very little about how these people ended up on the street or how they died. Were these opiate overdoses, suicides, deaths by exposure? And therefore what are the policy responses we should be demanding of governments? The public can’t hold elected officials to account without first understanding the dimensions of the issue.

Releasing more detailed information would serve another purpose, too. It would help humanize a problem that politicians have for too long found easy to ignore.

As Councillor Joe Cressy told the Star: “If the test of a city is how well it cares for the most vulnerable, these deaths show we are failing.”

He’s right. The most recent Street Needs Assessment pegged the number of homeless people in the city at 5,253 in 2013, about the same as it found in 2009. The waitlist for affordable housing in Toronto is 181,000, roughly the same number of people as live in St. John’s, Nfld. In May, Toronto’s shelter system was at 96 per cent capacity, above the 90 per cent rate the city has determined means shelters are full and there is a risk of homeless people being turned away.

In a rich city such as ours, no one should be dying, forgotten, on the streets. Governments can do much more to provide reasonably priced housing for all. They can make sure that shelters are available, accessible and properly funded throughout the year. No one should be turned away.

They can also do more to ensure that health services, especially mental health services, are made more easily accessible to this vulnerable population. Addiction services and harm reduction measures must be central to that effort.

This is not simply the right thing to do. In addition to the moral case, there is a compelling economic argument for tackling homelessness. Advocates estimate the cost of not dealing with the problem is about $7 billion a year in Canada, a substantial portion of which is related to hospitalization and incarceration.

Toronto Public Health took an important step when it started to collect robust data on the problem. Now it should share that information so the public can put pressure on governments finally to act on it.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/07/31/make-data-on-homeless-deaths-public-editorial.html

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