Denise Warriner says she can't put into words the pain she's felt since the death of her 24-year-old niece, Daisy, last month.
Warriner helped raise Daisy, whose birth mother was unable to care for her due to mental health and substance abuse issues, but she left home in her teens and entered the foster care system. Daisy struggled with drugs herself, was in and out of jail for petty crimes, and recently became homeless.
On Nov. 28, Daisy was found dead from an overdose inside a shelter hotel room in Toronto. Her death came a year and a half after her mother, Danielle Stephanie Warriner, died following a confrontation with guards at a Toronto hospital.
"[Daisy] was such a beautiful, caring, sensitive and loving, super creative person," Warriner said in an interview on CBC's Metro Morning.
"There's indescribable pain. We're in excruciating agony."
Daisy's one of more than 100 people who died while homeless in Toronto this year. Warriner believes her death was preventable, and one advocate says the City of Toronto isn't doing enough system-wide to tackle the root causes of homelessness, and prevent the deaths of unhoused people.
Memorial list grows
According to city data, 126 shelter residents died between January and November of this year, including 91 men, 30 women and five transgender or non-binary people.
Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Toronto, believes the total number of people who died while homeless this year is 180.
Community members from Sanctuary and Church of the Holy Trinity keep a list of names of those who die while homeless and, once a month, they hold a memorial service to honour them. In December, they added 35 names to the list, including Daisy's.
Warriner said Daisy had expressed a desire to get help before her death, but was unable to access immediate support in her time of need.
"When someone begins struggling, you're looking at ... wait lists and referrals and other roadblocks," said Denise. "Those are missed opportunities, and so your loved one continues to spiral quickly."
Daisy was living at a hotel shelter operated by Homes First at the time of her death. Warriner said the shelter has harm reduction supports in place, but there was a nine-hour period before Daisy's death where she wasn't given a wellness check — even though she had been identified as someone with a high risk of overdose.
In a statement, Homes First director James Facciolo said the organization is "incredibly saddened" by Daisy's death.
"Homes First is deeply committed to providing a safe and compassionate space with as many support services as possible in our programs to assist residents with a variety of complex needs," the statement said.
"We are also particularly dedicated to working collaboratively with anyone who would like to advocate for solutions that would end the devastating opioid crisis that currently inflicts our country."
City response not working: advocate
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary, told Metro Morning that the city's response to homelessness wasn't effective before, and the situation only got worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Before the pandemic, people were dying from overdoses, people froze to death in the winter time ... shelters were full. The waiting lists for subsidized housing was over 10 years for a single person, with over 80,000 people waiting," Lam said.
"The ... system wasn't working, and [now] it is crumbling quickly and furiously."
City data shows that 9,199 people accessed the shelter system in November, a net increase of 252 people that month. Approximately 250 were moved to permanent housing.
Lam said the solution to homelessness is more affordable housing, and she criticized the city for evicting people from tent encampments earlier this year.
She said some people don't feel safe in shelters, in part, due to a lack of personal protective equipment and rapid testing. (There are seven active COVID-19 outbreaks at city-run shelters, accounting for 54 cases.)
"When people feel like they have no options, they do what they need to to survive," Lam said. "So, we're going to see more people end up outside."
In a statement, the city said it's saddened to learn about the death of a client, and highlighted a number of measures it's taking to address opioid-related overdoses in the shelter system. Some of those include opening supervised consumption sites, implementing peer witnessing programs, offering drug checking services, and embedding harm reduction workers.
It also highlighted efforts to advocate for a safe supply of opioids and for the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use.
A separate news release on Thursday said the city is taking proactive measures to protect the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness.
"The city ensures that vulnerable people can access emergency shelter when they need it and are assisted in finding permanent housing as quickly as possible," the release said. "From January to November 2021, the city assisted more than 3,100 people experiencing homelessness to move from the shelter system into permanent housing."