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Most jurisdictions don’t track deaths of homeless people — but that could soon change

Every day, Sabrina Robichaud rides her bike to a mural she made in downtown Moncton for friends who died struggling with homelessness.

She tidies up the area around the fence on Dominion Street where she made the mural, and all too often, she’ll add a new name to the list.

In the weeks since she started the mural, Robichaud has gathered more than 200 names of people she’s learned died over the last several years and who didn’t have places to live.

The 29-year-old woman, who doesn’t have a home herself, has also tracked down photos of many people on the list and added them to the mural, so people can see their faces.

Several photos of people's faces are taped to a fence.
Robichaud has collected photos of many of the people who died, so people can see their faces on the wall. She’s written their ages on the photos. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

“It’s important because it shows that we’re not just numbers,” Robichaud said.

“We’re humans. We might have went down the wrong road. We might have went through a lot of trauma, mental health and illness, and different scenarios that put us here. But we are human. We do matter.”

But exactly how many people have died in New Brunswick while experiencing homelessness isn’t clear. The province doesn’t track that specific piece of information, leaving people like Robichaud to try to track the death toll of the opioid crisis and housing crisis that have been unfolding around them.

WATCH | ‘We do matter,’ says woman who made mural in honour of people who died while homeless in Moncton:

most jurisdictions dont track deaths of homeless people but that could soon change 1

Tracking deaths of people who die homeless

5 hours ago

Duration 2:31

New Brunswick is starting to track the deaths of people who were homeless. Some people have already been keeping a grim toll.

For years, most jurisdictions across Canada have failed to accurately track and report on this. Exceptions include British Columbia and the City of Toronto, which publishes a dashboard on its website with data on the deaths of people who were experiencing homelessness.

But that may soon change. Last month, the Public Health Agency of Canada developed a universal approach to collecting data on “residence type” and shared the new process with coroners and medical examiners across the country.

That data could start flowing to the Canadian Coroner and Medical Examiner Database from provinces and territories as early as this summer, and aggregate information could be made available via Statistics Canada, according to the government agency.

That came after the two federal agencies, in partnership with the country’s chief coroners and medical examiners, decided there was a need for better information.

“People experiencing homelessness may be at an increased risk for preventable deaths due to existing health inequities,” Jasmine Emond, a spokesperson with Statistics Canada, wrote in a statement sent to CBC News.

“For example, research has identified that people experiencing homelessness are over-represented among substance-related acute toxicity deaths.” 

In New Brunswick, the chief coroner’s office “is in the process of making changes to begin tracking these deaths and reporting on them,” according to spokesperson Allan Dearing.

Nova Scotia already publishes statistics on the living situation of people who die as a result of drug toxicity, while Prince Edward Island is looking into an electronic case management system that would allow its coroner’s office to track information such as housing status and occupation.

Like the other Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t track deaths of all people experiencing homelessness “due to the difficulty in obtaining accurate information related to an individual’s living arrangements at the time of death.”

But the province is in talks with the Public Health Agency of Canada to establish a way to start tracking the information, according to a statement from chief medical examiner, Dr. Nash Denic.

Piecing together a puzzle

The change is welcome news to researchers like Naomi Nichols, who has been working in Peterborough, Ont., to try to capture data on how and why people die experiencing homelessness.

For a long time, Nichols said, service providers on the front lines would hear about deaths in their community. Government agencies may have other details about that person.

“They each had access to one piece of the puzzle, so we had to find a way to connect those pieces of the puzzle but without compromising or jeopardizing privacy,” said Nichols, who is a sociology professor at Trent University and the Canada Research Chair in community-partnered social justice. 

A tent city is shown during the summertime in Canada.
Communities across New Brunswick are seeing an increase in homelessness and food bank use. (CBC)

Collecting that information can help fight misconceptions, Nichols said, including that everyone who dies while homeless is dying from drug poisoning. People can also die of exposure to cold and heat, or from underlying health conditions made worse by a lack of access to necessities, Nichols said.

While it’s too early to draw conclusions from the data that’s been gathered in Peterborough, Nichols said the process is also important because of the message it sends to people who are homeless: that someone cares about keeping them alive.

“It feels like we’re racing against the clock,” Nichols said. “People aren’t making it through. Winter after winter, we’re losing people.”

‘We feel heartache’

In downtown Moncton, not far from Robichaud’s mural, staff at Ensemble Moncton, a harm reduction organization, have made their own memorial for people they’ve lost.

Their names and faces are pasted to the wall in the room where the organization’s overdose prevention site is housed. Over the last two years, there have been more and more names added.

In the middle is a portrait of Luke Landry, a 35-year-old man who died in a public washroom outside Moncton City Hall after not being able to find a shelter bed in November 2022.

A paper heart is taped to a wall with text written on it: "Mom, Gone but never forgotten! Always in our heart. #endoverdose"
Ensemble Moncton’s memorial wall includes messages and photos honouring people in the community who have died. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

“We feel heartache,” said Debby Warren, the executive director of Ensemble Moncton.

“We’ve got to know these individuals beyond the substance. They have hopes and dreams like you and I. They have talents. They can sing, they can draw, they can build.”

Many of the people in the wall were in their 30s and 40s, though Warren said she has increasingly seen younger people dying.

Sometimes they discover a person has died through word of mouth in the community. Other times, Warren’s staff will phone hospitals and jails to try to track down someone who has disappeared, feeling relief if they learn they’re incarcerated.

“It is overwhelming,” Warren said. “I don’t know how many workspaces have memorial walls from clients that they’ve lost, from co-workers that they’ve lost, from friends that they’ve lost.”

Gaps in data

Some of these people have died because of toxic drug poisoning, and provincial figures show apparent overdose deaths reached record numbers in 2022. According to the province’s most recent data, 595 people died from “apparent substance toxicity” between January 2016 and September 2023.

But Warren feels this doesn’t paint a full picture. She also sees people dying from side-effects of substance use, from infections and conditions such as endocarditis, which aren’t captured in New Brunswick’s overdose death tracking data.

It also wouldn’t capture the deaths of three people — Evan McArthur, Rae Tyler and Jonathan Calhoun — who were found dead following fires in tents this past winter in New Brunswick.

Warren hopes the province’s reports will soon incorporate the new data the coroner is collecting on those who die without a home.

“It would be helpful for all kinds of reasons — around prevention work, around treatment and supports, and how programs are delivered,” Warren said.

A short drive away, at the mural, Robichaud said she sees love, beauty and caring when she looks at all the messages left for people who have died.

Several names on yellow post-it notes and photos appear on a fence.
This mural in downtown Moncton includes dozens of names and photos of people who’ve died who experienced homelessness. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

Every day without a home is a struggle for Robichaud. She said it’s hard to find a place to sit and get out of the heat for more than five or 10 minutes before being asked to leave.

Robichaud has struggled with housing on and off for the last decade. She believes finding a home would make it easier for her to stay away from drugs. She’s watched friends leave jail or rehab only to have nowhere to go but the streets, where they return to the same routines.

Looking at her mural, Robichaud said she wishes some of her friends knew how loved they were before they died.

“A lot of us, we don’t think we matter to a lot of people because most of our families and stuff pushed us away because of our addictions or our mental health or our struggles,” she said.

“We didn’t expect to have people that actually loved and cared about us. So seeing this, it shows how much they were cared [about] and how much they actually meant to people.”

This article is from from (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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