On a freezing cold evening last January, bundled-up volunteers unloaded boxes of snacks, oatmeal, disinfectant wipes and warm clothes from a minivan at the tent encampment outside Peterborough’s Wolfe Street homeless shelter.
Encampment residents milled around the dozen or so tents, chatting and grabbing snacks from the volunteers. It was one of the coldest nights so far this winter, with the windchill dipping to -25 C. A man with frostbite on his fingers groaned in pain. Another man, named Larry, wore three layers of sweatshirts and a thin blanket over his shoulders, but no coat.
The fight against the punishing cold was far from the only struggle going on that night. As they tried to get through the winter, Larry and others were also burdened by the memory of friends who haven’t made it. Larry lost a good friend who also lived rough before Christmas. The two used to watch fireworks together in Del Crary park and go to a downtown church for hot meals, he said.
His friend would “give you the shirt off his back,” he said. “We all loved him.”
Anti-poverty advocates say that several people without housing have died in Peterborough so far this winter. But it’s difficult to pinpoint how many; no government agency keeps an official count. There are often reports of deaths on social media, but they can be difficult to verify. Sometimes families don’t want information about their loved ones to be made public and Peterborough police don’t “release information about incidents such as sudden deaths for privacy reasons,” according to spokesperson Sandra Dueck.
Kristal Jones, a supervisor at the One Roof Community Centre, said she hears about a memorial for someone who has died in the community – whether it’s related to homelessness or drug poisonings – every week or two.
“It’s incredibly difficult because these are preventable and avoidable [deaths],” she said. “This is death by poor policy, in my opinion.”
Deaths of unhoused people not tracked
Most jurisdictions in Canada don’t track deaths of people without housing, with Toronto and British Columbia being two major exceptions.
That lack of data says a lot about how people without housing are viewed, according to Naomi Nichols, a Trent University sociology professor who studies homelessness.
“When children die [in Ontario], there are particular legal requirements to investigate,” said Nichols, who is the Canada Research Chair in Community-Partnered Social Justice. “We don’t have something like this for other vulnerable populations, for example, people experiencing homelessness…it’s one of the many ways we communicate that we don’t care as a society.”
Now Nichols and other anti-poverty advocates in Peterborough are exploring how they might track the deaths themselves.
Trent’s Research for Social Change Lab, which Nichols runs, is spearheading the effort. It is still in its early stages, but the goal would be to create a system for homelessness service organizations such as shelters to pool information about deaths in the community. (Disclosure: Currents co-publisher Will Pearson works at the Research for Social Change Lab).
Documenting how many lives are lost on the city’s streets each year will give “irrefutable” evidence of how dire homelessness has become, said Kerri Kightley, who led the United Way’s point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness in 2021.
“It’s another marker to show a worsening crisis,” said Kightley, who also manages the supervised drug consumption site at 220 Simcoe Street. “If we could clearly say there were x number of deaths because of outdoor homelessness or x number of deaths that were in part due to outdoor homelessness, then we could make a case for funding to treat outdoor homelessness differently.”
The hope is that if the public and politicians can see how many lives are being lost to homelessness, it will make it easier to push for more affordable housing.
But the data could also be used to help develop new strategies to keep people alive until that housing gets built, Nichols said.
Researchers know that homelessness makes people vulnerable to early death, she said. But more research needs to be done into what factors lead to death – and how to mitigate those harms.
“What are some things we could do to just lessen the likelihood that you will die on the streets?” Nichols said. “What are some things we can do to ensure that you’ll be here by next year, when we have some housing? And I don’t think we know that.”
Drug poisonings not the only cause of death
Nichols said many people often mistakenly assume that the vast majority of fatalities among people without housing are caused by drug poisonings.
But evidence from Toronto shows that’s not the case. That city has been tracking homeless deaths since 2017. Drug toxicity was responsible for 47 percent of all the deaths recorded since then. But for the rest, the cause of death was either unknown or was due to a host of other factors, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, COVID-19, infection, pneumonia, suicide, accident, homicide and hypothermia.
“I think the problem of assuming that most deaths are a cause of opioid poisoning or overdose is that, for a segment of our population, that allows them to say, ‘well, that’s not my problem then,’” Nichols said.
Kightley said often people experiencing homelessness have existing health conditions that can be made worse by exposure to the elements.
“Say someone who’s ill is sleeping outside because there are no shelter options, and then deteriorates quickly and ends up in the ICU and consequently dies…it’s comorbidity for sure,” she said. (Comorbidity is when a patient has multiple medical conditions at once). “[But] we’re not really tracking deterioration of health because of exposure.”
She said that when coroners investigate the cause of death of an individual who was living outside, they should consider whether exposure was a secondary factor.
In British Columbia, the provincial coroner has tracked homeless deaths for the last decade. In 2021, the coroner’s office recorded 247 deaths of people without housing in that province, a 75 percent increase from 2020.
However, coroners in Ontario are not required to determine the housing status of individuals who die – and it would be difficult to do so, according to the office of Ontario’s chief coroner.
“Coroners don’t always know if a person is unhoused or experiencing homelessness. Individuals may be within the shelter or social services system, or may be connected to a residence without actually residing at the residence, they may have living arrangements with friends,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Someone may die in an outdoor setting and not be experiencing homelessness. Further, if someone dies in hospital of natural causes, a coroner may not be called in to investigate the death.”
The provincial coroner does track when anyone in Ontario – whether unhoused or not – dies as a result of hypothermia. There were fewer than five hypothermia-related deaths in the City of Peterborough between 2018 and 2022, according to the chief coroner’s office.
Permanent memorial needed for those lost while experiencing homelessness, advocates say
While there is no official record of deaths of people without housing in Peterborough, front line workers, advocates and family members have their own ways of remembering those lost.
When a young man who was a regular at the One Roof Community Centre died last October, a small canvas was hung next to the lunch counter in the main hall for people to sign.
“In loving memory of Jeffrey Allan,” it reads. Allan had been in and out of homelessness since he was a teenager. He died at age 34.
It was Jones, the One Roof supervisor, who put up the canvas. “This world is a less beautiful place in your absence. You mattered,” she wrote on it. Another message said: “most gentle spirit. You will be missed.”
It’s important that people like Allan aren’t forgotten, Jones said. “It’s tragic because these folks, they have a life and they had the potential to have a full life – and that was cut short, in a cruel and unjust way.”
Allan’s life was the focus of a recent episode of One City Peterborough’s podcast, Community Records.
In the episode, One City co-executive director Christian Harvey said so many people without housing have died recently that it’s become hard to mourn each one.
“It feels like you can’t spend any time, because the next person passes away, and the next person,” he said.
“I don’t want it to get to a point where someone dies and I don’t grieve for them,” said Tammy Kuehne, One City’s director of community development.
In early January, a candlelit vigil was held outside city hall for those who have died or faced stigma because of homelessness, substance use and mental health challenges.
Photographs of those lost were placed along the walkway leading up to city hall.
Courtney Fisher, one of the vigil organizers, said when an unhoused person who was well known dies, there’s often a big outpouring from the broader community – as was the case when Doug “Dougie” Johnson died in early January. But she said many others don’t get the same attention.
“It’s very sad to say, but a lot of their deaths go unreported,” she said.
Kightley said she would like to see a permanent memorial for people without housing who have died in the city, to provide a space for everyone to be remembered.
“I think it’s important to say people’s names and give space for grieving,” she said.