Edmonton advocates urge province to track deaths in homeless community

An encampment in the heart of Edmonton as seen on November 15, 2022. (Kory Siegers/CBC - image credit)
An encampment in the heart of Edmonton as seen on November 15, 2022. (Kory Siegers/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton advocates are calling on the provincial government to track deaths in the homeless community to better direct dollars and resources.

One of the latest deaths occurred on Nov. 3, when a 64-year-old Indigenous man was found dead after his tent caught fire in the downtown core.

News circulated fast among the hundreds of Edmontonians living outside, but it's unclear how many deaths have occurred among people experiencing homelessness since temperatures dropped earlier this month because no government agency tracks those numbers.

Neither the provincial government nor the city track mortality rates of Edmontonians experiencing homelessness.

"I think the people that have the jurisdiction to act on this would probably prefer that those numbers aren't known," said Jim Gurnett, a community activist with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECHH), who has long called for an official count.

"If we don't know how bad it is, it's easier to not take any action to address it."

Since 2005, the coalition has identified and counted the number of homeless people who have died in Edmonton. The deceased are honoured at a memorial every June.

ECHH finds them by asking those working directly with people living outside. The names are then cross-checked to remove duplicates.

Jim Gurnett
Jim Gurnett

In 2005, Gurnett recalls the tears in his team members' eyes after 32 people were identified. In 2021, that number rose to 222. Some people freeze to death, said Gurnett, while others die of drug poisoning, fire or violence.

"But the main reason I believe is just chronically having everything about how to stay healthy destroyed and crushed around you. And there's a point where no human being can exist with that for longer," Gurnett said.

'Are they next?"

The impacts of such a death in the community are hard to verbalize, said Lina Meadows, a manager at Boyle Street Community Centre.

In the Nov. 3 incident, Meadows said neighbouring tents also caught fire, leaving fellow community members to start over.

'We know that it's only going to get colder," said Meadows. "We know that the reality is more of our community will likely die in a tent fire. It's not a one-off. The community is worried — are they next?"

While the man who died earlier this month was well known, often when a death is reported "detective work" is involved, Meadows said, which can involve talking to other community members and agency workers, calling hospitals and police.

"Sometimes it will take days or in other unfortunate cases weeks to be able to actually get that confirmation that somebody died."

She urged government authorities to redefine kinship in such cases because "the reality for a lot of our community members is that the agency is their family."

'Privilege of saying goodbye'

Bissell Centre has implemented a mail system for community members with no permanent address who may receive a note left by a loved one, asking them to call.

In some cases, Bissell workers are able to identify people who have died through photos shared by police. Sometimes they don't learn someone has died for years, if ever.

"Especially with things like privacy laws, unless they're in a system somewhere and that system finds out that they've passed away, there's really only so much we can do," said Bissell Centre spokesperson Scarlet Bjornson.

"So lots of times, unless a community member has seen one of their friends pass away or watch them drive away in a van, they're just gone. Their friends don't get that privilege of saying goodbye. You don't get any closure."

Trevor Wilson/CBC
Trevor Wilson/CBC

Alberta Justice press secretary Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney said death investigations by the chief medical examiner take on average nine months to complete. Reports are published online, including whether a person has no residence.

"Any death of a homeless person, regardless of cause, is a tragedy. Our thoughts are with those who may be struggling to find a home or shelter during the cold winter months," Lecavalier-Kidney wrote in an email.

When asked by CBC about the number of deaths in the homeless population, Alberta Health Services referred questions to Alberta Health. Alberta Health did not respond to an email asking whether the government would consider tracking the deaths of people experiencing homelessness.

Bjornson said she was relieved to recently catch up with her uncle who has lived on the streets for decades and inspired her career path.

"It's a miracle and it's wonderful, but then it's just like, how do we get them to make it through the next six months?"