The toxic drug crisis in British Columbia was a key factor in pushing the number of deaths of homeless people up by 75 per cent in 2021 compared with the year before, the BC Coroners Service says.
A preliminary report released Wednesday by the service shows there were 247 deaths of people experiencing homelessness last year.
Vancouver saw the majority of deaths, with 50 recorded, followed by Surrey and Victoria with 29 and 18 deaths, respectively.
“This report reflects the risks and realities that people experiencing homelessness face every day,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a statement.
“We know that many are facing significant health concerns, including physical disabilities, mental-health challenges and substance-use issues. Additionally, as is also evident in the province’s housed population, the report details the significant risks associated with toxic drugs for those who are unhoused.”
She said she hoped the report would support “positive action” during and beyond Homelessness Action Week, which runs until Oct. 15 in B.C.
The report says 85 per cent of deaths last year among people experiencing homelessness were accidental, and 93 per cent of those accidental deaths were caused by the illicit drug supply.
The coroners service says an average of 153 homeless people died each year between 2016 and 2020.
In a joint statement, Housing Minister Murray Rankin and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson called each death a tragedy.
“The data is a stark reminder of the devastating impacts of the toxic drug crisis on people in B.C., compounded by the daily risks and health challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness,” the statement said.
“We are working on all fronts to turn the tide on this crisis, including expanding treatment services and harm reduction measures like drug checking and prescribed safer supply, including for people experiencing homelessness.”
The ministers said the government is continuing to open supportive housing and complex care housing spaces for people who need a higher level of support, for overlapping mental health and substance use challenges, trauma or acquired brain injuries.
A larger report looked at the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in the decade from 2012 to 2021.
It found that people between 30 and 59 years old accounted for 72 per cent of reported deaths, and 83 per cent of the people who died were men.
More than half of the investigated deaths occurred in either the Fraser or Vancouver Coastal health authorities.
Nearly three-quarters of the investigated deaths were classified as accidental, and 87 per cent of those accidental deaths were determined to have been caused by illicit drug toxicity.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2022.