With B.C. homelessness on the rise, activist wants homeless definition changed

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      A report titled Still Dying on the Streets, released by Megaphone Magazine, shows that deaths among homeless people rose by 70 percent in 2014.

      Meanwhile, an activist behind the report is calling for official definitions of homelessness to be modified in order to more accurately reflect the extent of the problem.

      The report, released on March 29 and using numbers from a B.C. Coroners Service report, says that at least 46 reported homeless people died in B.C. in 2014, which is the highest number of homeless deaths the province has seen since 2008. From 2006 to 2014, there were a total of 325 deaths, but it is estimated that the actual number of deaths is at least twice as high.

      Sean Condon, author of the Megaphone report and executive director of the magazine—which is sold on the streets of Vancouver and Victoria by homeless and low-income vendors—told the Straight by phone that he would like to see the definition of homeless changed to include, for example, people who are squatting in a house or women who are staying in abusive relationships.

      “We know that because it's exceptionally dangerous for women to be...on the streets, many of them stay in very abusive relationships,” he said. “If there's a woman who is homeless but is still in an abusive domestic relationship, the B.C. Coroners Service will not count them as homeless.”

      The B.C. Coroners report breaks homelessness down into different categories. It defines "street homeless" as persons living outdoors in a makeshift shelter, a parked vehicle, or any other structure not intended for habitation. ‘

      ‘Sheltered homeless’ is defined as persons staying at an emergency shelter (overnight) or temporarily sheltered (for less than 30 days) by friends or family. Persons residing for an unknown length of time in short-term shelters, safe houses for youths, or transition houses for women and children fleeing violence were included.

      Examples of individuals who were not considered homeless for the purposes of the coroners report include: people who do not have a permanent residence but are temporarily residing and paying rent in a motel, hotel, or another form of rental accommodation; people residing in structures intended for habitation without ownership, a rental agreement, or consent (squatters); people in correctional institutions, hospitals, or residential drug- or alcohol-treatment facilities; and people who have a permanent residence but are considered at high risk of homelessness because of unemployment, domestic violence, or other factors.

      Barb McLintock, coroner for strategic programs with the B.C. Corners Service (BCCS), said by phone that the definition of homelessness is very difficult because people can have a history of being homeless, find a place to live, and then end up on the streets again.

      “Homelessness is a very fluid thing," she said. "There's very few people that are consistently homeless.”

      McLintock agreed with Condon that there are lots of different kinds of invisible homelessness, including women who stay in abusive relationships.

      “It's not something that's easily figured out by us [BCCS] after they're dead,” she said.

      The Still Dying on the Streets report says that the vast majority of reported homeless deaths are men but that women women make up a much higher percentage of the hidden homeless population, which, it says, would likely skew the data in the report.

      “We know that there are much larger portions of homeless women, but to see only a small percentage of it accounted for doesn't make any sense,” Condon said. “It's very troubling to look at this and say, 'This is only a male crisis that only affects men,' when we know that it affects men and women equally.”

      Condon also said a lack of affordable housing has contributed to the increase in homelessness-related deaths and the best way to prevent homelessness is to end it, especially in areas where the numbers of deaths has spiked during the past few years.

      “We need to see more health and harm-reduction supports available in other communities,” he said. “We've seen a rise of deaths in the Fraser region, which the B.C. Coroners Services deems from New Westminster east to Manning Park.”

      Condon’s report says that at least 14 homeless people died in the Fraser region in 2014, which is a 100-percent increase from 2013.

      McLintock acknowledged that the BCCS's definition of homelessness is narrow but said it is the only one it has found practicable to use.

      “You have to be homeless on the day of your death, basically,” she said.

       Follow Jocelyn Aspa on Twitter @jocelynaspa