Street paper calls for action after homeless deaths hit record high in B.C.

Anita Hauck was well-known in downtown Maple Ridge, north-eastern Metro Vancouver, for her passionate defence of homeless people’s rights. It was a fight that claimed her life.

On 27 September, Anita heard that a fellow homeless person at their camp on Cliff Avenue was struggling to get warm. Determined to help, she climbed into a nearby clothing donation bin to find a jacket and blanket. But she got trapped.

Anita Hauck. Photo by Colleen Flanagan/Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News/Megaphone

Anita was unconscious by the time rescuers were able to free her. She died in the hospital the next day, her family by her side.

Anita’s case is not uncommon in British Columbia (B.C.). A new report by INSP member Megaphone has revealed that at least 46 homeless people died in the province in 2014.

This figure represents a 70% increase from the previous year and the highest number of homeless deaths in a single year in B.C. since 2008, according to the Vancouver street paper.

“Homelessness is an early death sentence.”

In light of the findings, Megaphone is calling on the Canadian government to take action by implementing a poverty reduction policy and increasing equal access to housing and support.

“Homelessness is an early death sentence,” said Megaphone’s executive director Sean Condon.

“These deaths were tragic and unnecessary. They could have been prevented had safe and secure housing and support been available to these individuals.”

According to the local Coroners Service, a total of 325 homeless people died in B.C. between 2006 and 2014. But the body admits the data is an undercount and the true figure could be twice as high.

The data also shows that 48.3% of homeless deaths were “accidental”, compared to just 16.5% of all deaths in the general population.

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.

Sean believes the statistics highlight government inaction that is proving fatal for homeless people across B.C. He echoes the report’s recommendations – that the majority of deaths can be prevented if safe, affordable housing; health support; and harm reduction services are made widely available.

“A homeless person is likely to die three decades earlier than the average population… and the overall number increase shows that we are heading the wrong way,” Sean told INSP.

“We know what the solutions are to this crisis and we know it is more affordable for governments to provide this housing and services than to not. Yet we clearly lack the political will.

“Many people continue to view homelessness as a personal problem rather than a health crisis and their prejudice on this issue is having fatal results.”

The street paper has warned that with overdose deaths rising dramatically in 2015; evictions of residents in low-income buildings increasing; and affordable housing still not meeting demand, the number of homeless deaths in B.C. will only increase.

Sean added: “The best way to prevent homeless deaths is to end homelessness, which can happen with coordinated effort from all levels of government. We hope this report shows the tragic consequences of continued inaction.”

His opinion is shared by many. An online petition launched by the street paper directly calling on Premier Christy Clark and her government to address the issue has already received close to 700 signatures.

Anita's mother Loretta Sundstrom and Megaphone’s executive director Sean Condon speak at a press conference.

Tragically, when Anita died she was just one week away from getting into an apartment.  Her family agreed that more needs to be done to support people experiencing homelessness.

“She wanted to turn homeless people from invisible to visible and help them get housing,” said Anita’s mother, Loretta Sundstrom. “Anita herself just needed a job and a place to stay. If she had gotten a place to stay she could have done anything with her life.”

Anita’s sister, Karen, added that homelessness is a growing issue that cannot be ignored.

“We have to stop shying away from the fact that we are putting people on the street,” she said. “We need to provide shelter, food and clothes for people. They are somebody’s family. They’re our family.”

Read the full report on homeless deaths in B.C., Still Dying on the Streets, here.