FRONT NEWS // HOMELESS DEATHS
Death on the streets What happens to the homeless when they die?
// Jasmine Abbey
n August Friday evening, the sun made no apologies. A little too hot, I waited for Jim Gurnett outside the Boyle McCauley Health Centre on 96 Street. The traffic is pleasantly low in this area of town, with just as many bikes going by as cars. There were plenty of people out, and a couple of churches nearby. Some of the people around me were homeless and could possibly die before too long as street life generally leads to a shorter life expectancy. Comparatively few people take notice when the homeless pass away. News organizations typically don't bother covering these deaths unless something unusual happened, and for most people it's a problem easier ignored than worried about. But when a homeless person does die, the body requires the same attention as anyone else's, and somebody has to ensure that things are taken care of. To clarify, not all people affected by homelessness live exclusively on the streets. Gurnett, from the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, splits the population into different groups. "The thing most people are familiar with are what I would call 'street homeless people,'" he says. "And that's people who are basically sleeping or resting wherever they can." Some will from time-to-time make use of emergency shelters. But many, whether because of the lack of comfort, no opportunity to sleep with an opposite-gender partner or any number of other reasons, may choose to live in park land or elsewhere, even year-round. "There are thousands more that we
call 'hidden homeless.' One of these folks might, for example, through their AISH worker or through the Housing First program, they might get an apartment or a suite somewhere, then let three, four, five friends or cousins sleep with them." But this is not stable housing and there are thousands more precariously housed, who could become homeless at any moment due to fleeing domestic
don't contact the family, that is in the hands of the police and the coroner's office. On occasion, family will actually contact us and they sometimes want to come down and visit Hope Mission and kind of get a sense of their loved ones." Hope Mission's chaplain, who may have known the deceased personally, is also available to family who want support, and their pastor will often arrange for memorial services.
We know from a lot of research that's been done in Canada that the life expectancy of homeless people is 10 or 12 years shorter than the average life expectancy of Canadians. assault or losing an insecure job—and then many more living beyond their means, for whom it may only be a matter of time before they're forced out of their homes. When someone dies on the streets or in a shelter, the questions of who reports it, who is notified and how the funeral is arranged are more apparent. Devin Komarniski from Edmonton's Hope Mission told me what happens when somebody passes at their shelter. "The first step is to call EMS so they can come and confirm whether the person is deceased," he begins. "Of course, our staff has first-aid training and they can assess it to a certain level. EMS comes on site, if they confirm that the person is deceased, they will contact the police as well as the coroner's office. The police come down and they conduct a report. "We share with them who this person is, because everyone's registered here at Hope Mission. At that point, we
Meanwhile, the body may end up at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner—a likely destination for those found on the street as well. Family and friends may be enlisted to identify the body, but they may also use dental records, physical characteristics such as scars or tattoos, as well as DNA. Occasionally, the public's help will be sought. Only rarely do all attempts fail. When they do, the OCME might release the body for burial or cremation, but will keep records for the sake of future identification. "We hold a yearly memorial service for anybody who's died that has been using our facilities," Komarniski says. "We do our utmost to honour our guests who pass, because they are like family. Strong bonds are made between guests and staff, and when someone dies it's devastating for us. It's the opposite of what we're trying to achieve." During the three-year span of 2010 to
2012, 185 deaths of people of no fixed address were investigated in Alberta— accounting for 1.6 percent of all investigations. While that appears a small percentage, according to Alberta's Housing First program, 11 000 Albertans are homeless—0.28 percent of the total population of 3.9 million. Not all deaths require notifying a medical examiner or an investigator, though the categories are broad. Unexplained, unexpected or violent deaths, as well as those due to poisoning (including drugs) and those of unidentified bodies, are a few conditions that would trigger notification. Not all of those notifications result in an investigation. If there is one, when the investigation is over Human Services Alberta will cover the cost of a funeral, should nobody else step forward. A basic coffin is a common final destination, but there is usually at least somebody willing to mark the occasion. "There's always a church or something that will have a service," Gurnett says. "I've been to many funerals with 10 or 12 people that knew and cared about the person in one of the churches along 96 Street. The basic cost is covered, but it's still a tragic event because often those people do have a lot of family who love them and care about them, but they're too far away to come and be at the funeral. And maybe they've lost touch with them. "It feels a little disappointing or sad to be at those kinds of funerals—but there's also people who die who have quite a good network of friends. I've also been at funerals where 50 or 60 family or friends of the people are there.
VUEWEEKLY AUG 15 – AUG 21, 2013
"It's like any funeral. If they are from more of an aboriginal background, they might have those elements there. If more of a Christian background, they might have that. I think usually there's at least some attempt to have dignity." While the funerals themselves may be no different to those of everyone else, there are differences in the causes of death. Of those 185 investigated, only 18.4 percent amongst the homeless were determined to be due to natural causes, compared to 48.5 percent of all other deaths investigated. "What's awful is the fact that they didn't have to die," Gurnett says. "We know from a lot of research that's been done in Canada that the life expectancy of homeless people is 10 or 12 years shorter than the average life expectancy of Canadians." When it comes to homicide, suicide and undetermined causes, the rate was slightly higher in the homeless compared to others, while accidental death was lower. And deaths determined to be directly related to acute or chronic ethanol and/or drug use were at 40 percent as compared to 13.2 percent in all other investigated deaths. While these numbers aren't exhaustive, they do indicate a strong trend of preventable deaths. "It's not so much what happens when they die," Gurnett says, "it's the absolute unnecessary fact that they lose those years of life because we're allowing people to live in poverty, we're allowing people to live in homelessness. "They should have been out living and enjoying a good life." RYAN BROMSGROVE