B.C.'s homeless death 'crisis' warrants review, advocate says

Advocates for the homeless are calling on the B.C. government to create a death review panel, saying homeless people are dying on the streets at alarmingly high rates.

In a report by Megaphone Magazine using data provided by the BC Coroners Service, the advocates say 70 homeless people died in 2015 in British Columbia, more than any year on record.

The previous high was 50 deaths in 2008.

"This is a crisis on our streets that demands an emergency response," says Jessica Hannon, the executive director of Megaphone Magazine.

This year's report spotlights Michael, a five-year Megaphone vendor who passed away in an alley off of Commercial Drive. His last name has been withheld to protect his family's identity.

"He had this sort of wry, mischievous sense of humour," Hannon said. "He was kind, even on his toughest days."

Michael's brother David said Michael was creative and bright, having worked in the film industry for years.

David had been looking for Michael after not seeing him for five years. He isn't sure how Michael ended up on the streets or whether he was even permanently there.

He said Michael's death was a shocking, mind-numbing experience.

"He was found in an alley. People had been very kind to him. The shop-owner had let him stay there for a number of months. In the mornings, a young woman would come out and gently check on him.

"She checked on him and he seemed to be fine. She came back a couple of hours later and he hadn't moved."

Opioid crisis

While Michael's death is still under investigation, and it is unknown whether drugs played any role, Hannon said the opioid crisis is also taking its toll on the homeless population.

In 2016, 922 people died of opioid overdoses in B.C. alone, according to the BC Coroners Service.

"We know from looking at when the opioid epidemic was really starting to kick up in 2015, that corresponds with numbers spiking in homeless deaths as well," she said.

"It makes [me] really frightened to see the 2016 homeless death numbers knowing how bad it got last year with 922 people dying from opioid overdose."

Death review panel needed

Hannon says the BC Coroners Service only investigates roughly a quarter of all deaths in the province, although homeless deaths are investigated at a higher rate.

She says the coroners often miss those individuals who are considered 'hidden homeless' — those who are temporarily staying with friends or family, or stuck in violent relationships due to a lack of housing.

Hannon's group is a calling for a more systematic and coordinated study of homeless deaths via a death review panel.

"A death review panel can look at a number of deaths with similar circumstances and create recommendations on that going forward to prevent similar deaths," she explained.

Ultimately, however, it's also about reducing homelessness altogether. 

"With certainty [the thing that would have prevented my brother's death] would have been a warm place to stay," David says.

"That single thing would have made a difference."

Listen to the segment on CBC's The Early Edition