From the Toronto Star
Now get to work on homeless deaths: Editorial
There’s an old business adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you don’t know the size of a problem and how it’s changing over time, you almost certainly won’t do a good job of dealing with it.
For the first time, Toronto has a reasonably accurate measure of one of the most disturbing problems we face – the number of homeless people who die on our streets.
The first results show the situation is even worse than anyone thought. In the first three months of this year, 27 homeless people died – more than two a week. That’s far higher than the 11 deaths counted by volunteers with the Toronto Homeless Memorial over the same period.
If the trend continues all year, the total for 2017 will be over 100. That’s a lot more than the 33 homeless people who died last year in shelters run by the city.
The difference is that Toronto Public Health worked with 200 health organizations and social agencies to track the number of homeless deaths regardless of where they happened – in shelters or on the street.
Amazingly, no one had done that before in a systematic way. This, despite calls going back more than 30 years to carry out such a count. A coroner’s inquest recommended conducting a survey back in 1985, but it was never done.
The issue came up again early last year when the Star published a series of investigative articles on the “invisible dead,” homeless people who die among us without ever being officially accounted for.
It found that the province and most municipalities (including Toronto) had no way to track homeless deaths in a comprehensive way. That left them without the information needed to properly understand the scope of the problem. Its importance was downplayed and government wasn’t getting at the root causes.
Now, at least, governments have fewer excuses for inaction. As a result of the ongoing count by Toronto Public Health they are getting a much more accurate sense of how big the problem of homeless deaths is in our city.
No one expects that all such deaths can be prevented. Homelessness is associated with all sorts of health problems, and it’s no surprise that the new survey shows the median age of deaths was just 51.
But there is little doubt that the city and province can do more to lower the death toll among the homeless and save more people from dying, forgotten, on the streets of a rich city.
Governments can do more to provide reasonably priced housing for all. They can make sure that shelters are available, accessible and properly funded throughout the year, especially in the coldest months. 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. This will involve better funding and more outreach to people who are hard to serve, in part because of the very health issues they are dealing with. Addiction services and harm reduction measures must be central to that effort.
The point of measuring homeless deaths is not just to commit sociology. It’s to prompt better-informed, more effective policies to address the issue. The count now underway will be pointless unless governments use it to take action.