'It doesn’t have to be this way,' Shelter deaths in Toronto top 100 for second consecutive year
Published Thursday, February 2, 2023 5:21PM EST
Last Updated Sunday, February 5, 2023 3:13PM EST
For the second consecutive year, more than 100 people have died while staying at a Toronto shelter.
The latest data, which was recently released, shows 110 unhoused individuals – 81 men, 29 women – passed away while staying in a Toronto shelter in 2022. The average age of those who died is 51.
This is slightly down from 2021, which saw 132 shelter resident deaths in the city. That year, the average age of those who died was 47.
But it's still an alarmingly high tally, advocates for the homeless say.
“110 is still way too many,” street pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem, of Sanctuary Ministries, told CP24.com. “This is a city, a country where if we put our minds to it we could have zero shelter deaths.”
Since 2010, Johnson Hatlem has helped organize the Toronto Homeless Memorial, which is held on every second Tuesday of the month outside downtown’s Church of the Holy Trinity.
He said many of the people he and his team have added to the growing tribute were shelter residents.
“It’s really significant the number of people that died before their time on the street. These latest numbers show that homelessness is a death sentence in Toronto,” Johnson Hatlem said.
While there were 110 deaths involving shelter residents in Toronto in 2022, it should be noted that another 92 unhoused individuals died in the city last year.
That pushed the total number of deaths involving underhoused individuals to above 200 for the second straight year.
‘It doesn’t have to be this way’
Lisa LeBlanc has lived in Toronto shelters for the last eight years.
She said she’s known of dozens of people who have passed away during that time, including at least five people in the last year at the shelter-hotel she calls home in downtown Toronto.
“Sadly, there’s a lot that goes on here. They don’t really tell people what’s going on, but we hear rumours through the grapevine. … One death is too many,” she told CP24.com during a recent interview.
She said that one of those individuals was a woman who was “loved by everyone.” Her death was “really traumatizing,” for a lot of people in the shelter, she said.
“It’s so sad. It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t have to be this way,” LeBlanc said, adding a lot of those who died accidentally overdosed on drugs, which many use to cope with the trauma and mental health challenges they deal with every day.
“I know it’s hard, but it shouldn’t be this hard. People don’t choose to be homeless or in a shelter.”
LeBlanc said while the best solution is to get people good, affordable housing with supports, treating unhoused people with more kindness, empathy, and understanding would go a long way.
“This experience has changed my life and not for the better. … It’s no way to live,” she said.
Increase in drug toxicity could be to blame for high number of deaths
In a statement provided to CP24.com, City of Toronto spokesperson Anthony Toderian said the municipality is “deeply saddened by all deaths of people experiencing homelessness both in and outside of the city's shelter system.”
Toderian, however, said that an increase in drug toxicity continues to result in an uptick in shelter deaths.
“Rates of non-fatal and fatal opioid poisoning remain consistently high. The unregulated drug supply is increasingly toxic and unpredictable. From January to September 2022, 59 per cent of deaths in homeless service settings were due to confirmed or suspected overdoses,” he said.
In December 2020, the city in partnership with community agencies launched the “multi-pronged” Integrated Prevention and Harm Reduction Initiative (iPHARE) to address opioid-related deaths in Toronto’s shelter system.
Last year, the program provided more than $9 million in funding for a range of harm reduction supports, including placing embedded harm reduction workers or visiting harm reduction outreach workers at 23 shelters, respites and shelter hotel locations identified as priority sites based on overdose data.
Toderian said that the good news is that while 2022 saw increased demand for shelter services compared to 2021, that didn’t result in an increase in the number of deaths of shelter residents.
“This demonstrates that shelter policies and harm reduction initiatives are making an impact and helping to save lives,” he said.
Progress, however, appears to be slow.
To that end, Toderian said the city is “urging the provincial and federal governments to allocate additional funding for long-term investments to address the scale of need for mental health, harm reduction and treatment resources.”
Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration Division has collected data on shelter deaths since 2007 and conducts an annual review.
That first year, there were 24 deaths recorded in Toronto’s shelters.
By 2019, the number of people who died in the system reached 48.
The following year, in 2020, when the pandemic began, shelter deaths jumped to 74.
Since then, more than 100 people have died in Toronto’s shelters each year.