ANALYSIS: Why is London’s homeless death toll being kept secret?

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When The London Free Press ran an article for a few weeks on the city’s unprecedented number of homeless people – 46 until the end of October – the public reaction was shock and heartbreak.

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On the same day, the London Homeless Coalition reminded its members by email that the number was not meant to be made public.

The newspaper also received an email from the coalition explaining why this was so.

That same day in Toronto, the public health unit’s dashboard showed not only the number of homeless people who died up to the end of June, but also breakdowns by month, age, sex and cause of death.

Longtime Toronto street nurse, author and researcher Cathy Crowe expressed shock when told about London’s decision to keep the number of homeless deaths confidential.

“You can’t see this kind of thing happening and stay silent. So really, I really don’t understand. The resistance, I am really surprised.

There would be no question of disclosing the information “if there was this level of death in any other type of subpopulation, such as artists or journalists, college students or whatever,” said Crowe, who helped to push for the collection and publication of numbers in Toronto decades ago.

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Releasing the numbers and names, for families who agree, gives homeless people the same respect as other people who have died, Crowe said.

“People have lives and stories,” she said.

So why doesn’t London publish the number of those who have died?

From the start in London, data collection has been aimed at helping frontline workers and organizations track the people they serve, “come together and honor the lives lost,” said Jacyln Seeler, president of the London Homeless Coalition.

“The community got together and decided they wanted to share information because deaths were happening and community partners had never heard of it. Sometimes staff would come to work and then find that a participant had passed away and was in the middle of a shift. It would be really difficult.

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Seeler is the volunteer chair of the committee. Her job is the program manager of the street-level at-risk women program, which houses and supports survival sex workers.

Before becoming coalition chair, she thought releasing the numbers every year made sense, a way to show the depth of the problem, Seeler said. But after taking the chair of the coalition and talking to other members, she understands the reasoning.

On the one hand, the number is not exact, she said.

“We get information from next of kin, from the police or from the hospital, these are our three avenues. We do not have official figures from the coroner, nor the reasons for their deaths, ”she said.

Information about deaths is collected and shared through what is known as the Death Communication Protocol, which had representatives from 12 organizations on the list in the fall.

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Not all organizations in the city are part of the protocol, and not all homeless people are linked to organizations that are part of the protocol, the homeless coalition stresses.

The number of people who have died may include people who were sheltered at the time of death, but whose past and present experiences – trauma, drug addiction, fear of hospitals – can lead to their death, Seeler added.

This raises the second objection, one which shows how London organizations – despite discussions about the collaboration – have a ways to go before they get there.

“Reporting on the number of deaths shared through the LHC Death Communication Protocol can be misleading, and while it can expand the message of one organization, it can undermine the efforts of another,” the report reads. coalition email to The Free Press.

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“Readers can misinterpret the reported number in multiple ways, especially when year-to-year comparisons are made. Although access to safe and affordable housing is considered a social determinant of health, the LHC is unable to conclude that a person or group of people died because they were homeless. or had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, ”the email said. to coalition members and The Free Press read.

The number can be used by agencies and individuals to “advance a specific agenda,” where this or that factor is the leading cause of death, Seeler explained in an interview.

It simplifies the question of saying that people are dying because they don’t have housing, and sometimes those on the coalition’s list have housing, she said.

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People are also dying from the opioid crisis, lack of access to health care, addiction and mental health, and the ongoing trauma that makes people themselves afraid to seek help. , Seeler said. “People are dying because of systemic failures. “

Data from Toronto highlights the failure of different systems by listing the causes of death.

But Toronto benefits from both the coalition of homeless advocates and the support and expertise of the public health unit in collecting and disseminating information.

A few decades ago, Toronto homelessness agencies shared information and created a memorial that lists the names of those who died, with family permission if available.

“Previously, when a death occurred, it was so shocking that we would go to town hall and have a press conference, or go to the mayor’s office and ask for more shelters or whatever,” Crowe said.

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Deaths increased dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the Church of the Holy Trinity near the Eaton Center began supporting monthly memorials and created a commemorative plaque.

An inquest into homeless deaths recommended that these deaths be formally tracked, but nothing was done until a 2016 Toronto Star investigation led city council to vote to have homeless deaths. – shelters are tracked throughout town, Crowe said.

Now, statistical tracking is done by Toronto Public Health and names are collected, where possible, by the Toronto Homeless Memorial Network, Crowe said.

The network publishes an online memorial with names and photographs.

“If someone dies while homeless, they will be included in the online homeless memorial, regardless of the reason for their death. If a person has been homeless in the recent past and their death is associated with their homelessness, they will also be included, ”the network says on its website.

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It’s important for the public and politicians to know how many people are dying because the numbers tell a story, Crowe said. “It’s very common for there to be double-digit numbers every month. And that says a lot about the death trap of homelessness.

“We can talk about the causes of death and how the deaths are preventable. It is important to continue to follow this, so that we can push for change. “

At the very least, the information gathered by the London Homeless Coalition should be shared with city politicians and public health officials, Crowe said.

“If the data that the London coalition has collected has never been presented to your board of health or any relevant city committee, I am very alarmed, very alarmed because they (the members of the coalition) are on the front lines . These are the basics. They are at street level. They obviously have solid data.

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In her interview with The Free Press, Seeler said she was open to ideas on how to share the stories of London’s homeless, and perhaps report on increases each year.

She also expressed interest in discussing with coalition members how to present information to public health officials and civil society.

“I feel passionate about this, about spreading the story of homelessness,” Seeler said. “I want the community to know and feel a sense of responsibility and responsibility. “

But to the arguments that numbers can heighten that sense of responsibility, can move a community, can provide a narrative, Seeler stood firm.

“The number itself, I think, just because it seems inaccurate, it doesn’t tell a factual story. It really is not.

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