A spike in the number of deaths among Victoria’s homeless population over a four-month period in 2012 prompted an advocacy group at the University of Victoria to call for a coroner’s inquest in January.
“There were three times the number of deaths than in any previous year in the same four months,” said Yianni Pappas-Acreman, communications director for the Poverty Law Club.
The organization offers students a way to draw connections between law, poverty and homelessness.
He said 30 homeless people died in Victoria in the summer and fall of 2012.
The causes of death were varied, but the group identified one common factor – poverty.
“The root cause is the conditions of poverty that all of these individuals are living in,” said Mr. Pappas-Acreman.
Don Evans, executive director for Our Place Society, agreed.
Our Place is an organization that offers services and meals to Victoria’s needy.
Mr. Evans listed causes of death ranging from pneumonia and infection to accidents, suicide and murder.
He recalled one individual who was accidentally set on fire while trying to keep warm.
Both Mr. Pappas-Acreman and Mr. Evans said keeping track of the deaths of homeless people is a challenging task.
The statistic of 30 deaths in four months comes from records kept by Our Place.
“They were all well-known in the street community,” said Mr. Pappas-Acreman, explaining that all the individuals who died spent time at the same organizations.
“We did the memorial services for them,” said Mr. Evans.
“Our outreach workers knew them because they frequented this facility.”
Mr. Evans identified a lack of resources and the steep cost of living as major impediments to alleviating homelessness in Victoria.
According to the 2011-12 Greater Victoria Report on Housing & Supports, the cost of living in the province’s capital city exceeds income assistance.
“The shelter portion for income assistance recipients is $375.00, and median rental cost for a bachelor unit is $685.”
Mr. Pappas-Acreman wants to see a coroner’s inquest lead to a plan to reduce poverty in British Columbia.
“B.C. is only one of two provinces in the entire country without any sort of a poverty- reduction plan. Saskatchewan is the only other province without one,” he said.
But the chief coroner has yet to decide if there will be an inquest.
Barb McLintock, a spokesperson for the Coroner’s Service said the regional coroner is still reviewing files.
She acknowledged that it has been challenging to track down information on all of the individuals provided by the Poverty Law Club. She said only half of the deaths were previously reported.
A coroner’s inquest usually focuses on one incident and this request includes many individuals with several causes of death.
If the chief coroner finds a need for a formal investigation, Ms. McLintock said one possibility could be a death review panel.
“In a death review panel, we bring together a group of experts in a specific field to look at an aggregate number of cases, not just one,” she said.
Ms. McLintock said the coroner has never received a request to look into the deaths of homeless people in Victoria.
But they do receive many requests to look into deaths where “people think there’s a shortage of services of some variety or something’s gone wrong with the way the services are being done.”
If an inquest does happen, though, it likely won’t be for a while.
“I can’t imagine, to be honest, it would happen within less than another month or so,” said Ms. McLintock. “I mean I think that’s probably being optimistic.”
Mr. Pappas-Acreman and the Poverty Law Club plan to approach the provincial Minister of Health and raise awareness during the provincial election if their request for an inquest is denied.