Tracking homeless deaths is vital, but in Waterloo region this information is not widely shared

WATERLOO REGION – How many homeless people have died this year in Waterloo Region? How many people died last year?

In Toronto, 143 homeless people died in 2020, almost three deaths per week. In the first half of this year, data suggests that at least 94 people have died. The number of deaths in Toronto’s homeless community has risen sharply since 2018 and local policies have been developed in response.

But in Waterloo region, this data is not widely shared. Local shelters are supposed to report any deaths in a “community database” which is only available for Waterloo Region and certain service providers, but not all deaths in the homeless community are counted.

If someone dies while staying in a camp or while surfing in a friend’s apartment, that person’s death may not be documented as there is no dedicated organization for monitoring and communication of information.

Homeless people face unique challenges related to health care, nutrition, safety and substance use habits, which make them much more vulnerable to premature death, said Violet Umanetz, director of services. for harm reduction and overdose prevention at Sanguen Health Center.

“It’s also well known that change within larger systems requires data, whether it’s to request funds for projects or just to explain the need for those projects in the first place,” she said.

This is why the monitoring of deaths is important.

Umanetz, the supervisor of the Kitchener Consumer and Processing Services site, said she has no idea where to look for this kind of data.

“I absolutely believe this is useful information to have,” she said, not only to support funding requests, but for the sake of community education and the reduction of stigma and stereotypes. associated with roaming.

In a statement, Chris McEvoy, regional director of housing policy and homelessness prevention, said every homeless person dies is a loss to the community. When a death occurs at a shelter, the service provider documents it in a community database.

The database is only accessible to certain service providers. Deaths that occur outside of shelters are not included unless reported to the region.

When the region learns of a death, it “works with our partners to respond with actions focused on prevention and grief and trauma support for shelter staff and participants.”

The Record asked for the number of reported deaths in the homeless community over the past three years, but the region said that information is not shared publicly.

The seven service providers who have access to this information are Cambridge Shelter Corporation, Cambridge Food Bank, oneROOF, House of Friendship, YW of Kitchener Waterloo, Lutherwood and The Working Center.

Monitoring of overdose deaths

When it comes to tracking drug-related deaths, data is easier to come by.

According to data from the Office of the Chief Coroner, 145 drug-related deaths were reported in Waterloo region in 2020. This includes presumed deaths related to all drugs, including alcohol.

In the first 11 months of this year, 135 suspected drug poisoning deaths were reported. Most involve fentanyl and about half involve more than one substance. These more recent figures are subject to change slightly as toxicological results arrive.

Opioid poisoning related deaths are monitored by the Waterloo Regional Police Service. As of December 6, there was 87 reported deaths through the regional overdose surveillance report. Last year there were 102 deaths, and in 2019 there were 62.

Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, said that in Ontario, about one in six drug poisoning deaths occur among people who lack stable housing. With 135 overdose deaths reported locally so far this year, data suggests more than 20 of those people were homeless.

“As far as I know, no one is specifically monitoring (these deaths), and that’s a problem,” he said.

Parkinson said he was unaware that local shelters collect information about deaths when they occur in the shelter system, and there is no access to it.

“The lack of robust data collection always makes planning and response problematic,” he said.

These deaths are preventable and while there is work going on at the local level around harm reduction and drug poisoning prevention, it is a health concern, he said. Health is generally the responsibility of higher levels of government, not of local municipalities.

In the absence of leadership from provincial or federal governments, the response to overdose deaths in the homeless community is very different from the response to deaths on regional roads, he said, as example.

Ontario is one of the safest highway jurisdictions because the province engages in political and educational campaigns to make it happen.

“We haven’t seen that kind of response on what is arguably the biggest public health crisis in Canada, except COVID, but since the Spanish flu,” he said.

What is the response to these deaths?

At the end of November, two people from the local homeless community died. The Record confirmed this with executives at the Working Center after hearing about the deaths for the first time on Reddit.

In the September edition of Good Work News, the quarterly publication of The Working Center, the names of 76 people who have died this year are listed. Most of them died of drug poisoning. A memorial was held where 60 people were to be named, but that number rose to 76 as more names were put forward during the event.

In Toronto, municipal staff were data collection linked to deaths in the homeless community, both inside and outside shelters, since 2017. Data is publicly available online and people are encouraged to report new deaths.

“Public reports allow broader access to this data to inform policies, legislation and the planning of programs and services that help improve the health of homeless people and reduce health inequalities in Toronto,” Toronto public health statement said.

In Waterloo Region, when police are called in response to sudden death, officers work with the Office of the Chief Coroner to identify the deceased, document the circumstances of the death and notify next of kin. The coroner or family doctor is responsible for registering a person’s death.

“Coroners don’t always know if a person is not housed or is experiencing homelessness,” said Stephanie Rea, spokesperson for the province. Someone may die outside, but they may not be homeless, or they may die in the hospital and the coroner may not be called to investigate.

In an interview earlier this month, Ruth Cameron, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA), said every year that at least one community member dies from exposure – froze to death.

This death may go unreported for some time due to its trauma to those who knew the person. But eventually, that should be in the coroner’s data.

Data collection is important, but more data won’t necessarily lead to immediate solutions, she said.

“We know there was a 58% increase in fatal overdoses in our region between 2019 and 2020.

“That’s all the data you need here. “

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