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Hundreds of homeless die on B.C. streets, report finds

Tom Sawyer holds flowers in a circa 2008 handout photo. A new report released by a Vancouver-area street magazine says the life expectancy of a homeless person is about half that of the average British Columbian.

Paul Ruskay/THE CANADIAN PRESS

More than 280 homeless people have died in B.C. since 2006, and better housing and poverty reduction strategies are badly needed, a new report says.

The report, released on Thursday by non-profit group Megaphone, says the median age of death for a homeless person in B.C. is between 40 and 49 years, compared to an average life expectancy of nearly 83 for the general population. The report said 47 per cent of the deaths of homeless people in the province are accidental, compared to a general population rate of 18 per cent.

About one-third of the 281 deaths, or 92, occurred in Metro Vancouver, while 70 were on Vancouver Island and 64 in the Fraser Valley.

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Sean Condon, executive director of Megaphone, which also produces a magazine sold by homeless and low-income vendors, said the actual total in B.C. is likely much higher, but gaps in tracking make the "true number" impossible to obtain.

Speaking in an alley where a homeless man named Thomas Sawyer died in 2010, Mr. Condon said the report shows homelessness is incredibly dangerous and largely preventable – if governments are willing to invest in housing.

Mr. Condon told reporters he believes "If Tom had housing, he'd be alive today."

Mr. Condon was joined at the news conference by Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's former homelessness advocate. Ms. Graves choked up as she remembered Mr. Sawyer – known as the "Flower Man" for his tendency to sell or give away flowers.

"I will feel guilty forever that I was not able to house him before he died," Ms. Graves said.

Mr. Sawyer's death was classified as suspicious, and Ms. Graves said it was never determined if he was attacked or hit by a vehicle. He was 55. A small plaque hangs in the alley in his honour.

The report made 11 recommendations. First, it said the B.C. Coroners Service should amend its definition of homelessness to include people who were recently out on the street.

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Mr. Condon said that would make it easier to track deaths. He said a homeless person who died in hospital would not currently be counted. The same is true, he said, for a person who died just after getting into a housing unit.

The report also recommended the province develop a poverty reduction strategy, the federal government form a national housing plan, and all levels of government commit to building shelters and social housing, and creating supports.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who in 2008 committed to ending homelessness by 2015, said 400 units of social housing will open in the next few months, in addition to winter shelters. He said in an interview the goal remains to end homelessness as soon as possible.

He noted the Megaphone report said the number of homeless deaths in the Metro Vancouver region has dropped in recent years, from 20 in 2008, to 14 in 2009, to seven last year.

A spokeswoman for Rich Coleman, the B.C. minister responsible for housing, said he was unavailable for an interview Thursday. In an email, the spokeswoman wrote the province is reviewing the report's recommendations. She said the province last year provided $169-million to support more than 11,000 emergency shelter spaces, subsidized units and rent supplements.

Barbara McLintock, spokeswoman for the B.C. Coroners Service, said in an interview homelessness is a difficult issue for the agency to track. She said only one in four deaths is reported to the service, and if a death is classified as natural, the agency cannot investigate. She said it can also be tough to determine if and when a person was homeless.

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Ms. McLintock said her agency recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the First Nations Health Authority, which may provide more statistics in this area.

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