A total of 216 homeless people died in Toronto last year, according to new data from the city.
Figures released Friday by Toronto Public Health (TPH) indicate that there were an average of 4.2 deaths per week of homeless people last year.
The city says the number of deaths in 2021 has risen significantly from 2020. Seventy-two more people died last year than the year before, when 144 homeless people died. The number of deaths has more than doubled since 2017 – the first year the city collected such statistics – when 101 people died.
According to the data, 55% of deaths in 2021 were due to drug toxicity. Other causes of death include heart disease, accidents, complications from diabetes, hypothermia, liver and lung disease, organ failure, suicide and cancer.
The city says 132 of the 216 people who died were residents of homeless shelters.
For Gru, a resident of a shelter hotel whose legal name is Jesse Allan, the numbers are “horrendous” to hear.
“There are no words,” he said. “There’s just a deep, deep sense of loss that it was people like you or me who found themselves in a position where they couldn’t pay their rent or their mortgage. Homelessness in Canada is a death sentence. , really .”
Homelessness advocates say the numbers are staggering, but not surprising. They say the city enforced policies that created unsafe conditions for homeless people. And they say the solution is permanent housing and harm reduction supports, not policing and clearing settlements.
‘It’s a crushing number,’ says homeless advocate
Doug Johnson Hatlem, street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries in Toronto, said Saturday that Mayor John Tory, the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) and city councilors should all be held accountable for their policies on homelessness, given the “unacceptable number” of homeless deaths last year.
“It’s an overwhelming number,” Johnson Hatlem said.
“All three – the council, the Toronto mayor’s office and ASIS spent an incredible amount of their time and political capital insisting that they had the right to beat people to submit inside for what they called a safe inner shelter. Their priorities were completely irrelevant.”
In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there was more of a spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’, but in 2021 Tory’s attitude was ‘we’re going to do what we want to do and we’re not. not going to listen to people,” Johnson Hatlem said. The city has failed to engage with homeless people and their advocates and has instead chosen to act on behalf of wealthy people and those who don’t want to see homelessness in their backyards, a he declared.
“The problem is not going to go away until people are housed. And so we’ve seen a 50 per cent increase in deaths and that’s a massive number that somebody has to take heed,” he said .
“That’s not an acceptable number. I think a large majority of those deaths were preventable,” he added. “It’s always been a crisis that we have people who have died homeless on the streets of Toronto. At this point, it’s a five-alarm fire, and the people who should be treating it like a five-alarm fire don’t don’t.”
Johnson Hatlem said the city, for example, has gone to great lengths to clear encampments, which displaces and disperses homeless people, increasing their vulnerability. He said the city should sit down with homeless people and advocates to figure out what needs to be done to reduce the number of deaths and violence and to reduce the number of overdose deaths.
Rafi Aaron, spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, said it’s important to remember that each number represents a human being.
“They were wonderful people. They loved and were loved. They had people who were close to them. They were fathers, wives, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, sometimes great-grandmothers. parents. They were our neighbors or your neighbors. They were people who were vibrant and generous and we miss them very much and didn’t need to die,” Aaron said.
AJ Withers, steering committee member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network and adjunct professor in critical disability studies at York University, said some of the deaths occurred when the shelter system was more than 99% full. The lack of safer indoor shelters, the toxicity of illicit drugs and the dismantling of encampments were all “deeply concerning,” Withers said.
“Lack of safe supply, lack of access to overdose prevention sites and lack of access to proper risk reduction really means people are dying,” Withers said. “As the city does things like criminalize people in encampments, people are further and further removed from support systems and people are dying.”
Withers said the numbers are likely much higher because hospitals and emergency rooms do not report deaths of homeless people to TPH. Withers noted that the median age of deceased men was 49, while the median age of deceased women was 40, meaning “there are many years wasted” when people don’t have no accommodation.
Dr. Andrew Boozary, primary care physician and executive director of the University Health Network’s Gattuso Center for Social Medicine, said the city cannot “go back to normal” because homelessness was already a public health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic itself has disproportionately affected homeless people, he said.
“The solution to homelessness is housing. Shelters or encampments are not solutions to homelessness, it’s housing. And so, we really need to make sure that every level of government is committed to doing housing the solution. And if we don’t see that concerted effort, those rates will only continue to rise,” he said.
“And it’s up to us as a society because those rates are rising, not because of individual failures, but because of our failure to provide housing as a human right.”
Fighting poverty is also not the solution, he said.
“What really needs to be clear is that tearing down tents is not the solution to homelessness. It’s providing housing as a human right. It’s building more social housing, it’s give people better access to social housing and supportive housing.”
WATCH | Lawyers say the deaths were preventable. CBC’s Talia Ricci reports:
The city “saddened by all the deaths”
The city, in response, said it collects the data and uses it to help it make better decisions about improving the health of homeless people.
“The City is deeply saddened by all of the deaths of people who are homeless inside and outside of the City’s shelter system. We extend our condolences to the friends and loved ones of these individuals, as well as to our staff and to our customers who continue to witness these tragedies,” the city said in a statement.
“While the emergency shelter system plays an important role in supporting the health and well-being of homeless people, the real solution to improving health outcomes is permanent, supportive housing.”
Toronto’s 24-month housing and homelessness plan aims to create more than 3,000 new affordable housing opportunities by the end of the year, including 2,000 with supports, to meet the needs of people marginalized and vulnerable people experiencing homelessness, the city said.
In February 2022, the city said council had approved an accelerated housing plan to provide 300 additional “housing opportunities” through partnerships with housing providers and private market landlords.
“The death of anyone in our city is extremely sad and our condolences go out to the families and friends of those who passed away,” Tory said in a statement released Saturday night.
Tory defended the steps the city has taken to address homelessness and drug overdoses, including opening thousands of supportive homes, expanding the shelter system before and during the pandemic, and introducing harm reduction initiatives in shelters.
“Over half a billion dollars was spent last year by the City of Toronto on shelters and housing programs – it’s all because the Mayor and City Council understood that we have to do everything what we can as a city government to provide safe shelter for people, to provide supportive housing for those in need, and to help provide vaccines and other pandemic safety measures” , said the statement from his office.
“Despite the greatly increased level of activity, particularly in the area of supportive housing where the federal government has been of great assistance, much remains to be done and I recognize that, just as I continue to work hard to achieve support that we need to provide even more supportive housing, perhaps the most important key to addressing homelessness.”