The Poverty Law Club (PLC), a UVic Law poverty advocacy group, reported 15 homeless persons deaths that occurred between August and November 2012 to the B.C. Coroners Service (BCCS) in January, asking for an inquest or a death review panel investigation to determine the causes of death. Of the 15 deaths reported to the BCCS, two are being reviewed for possible further investigation.
According to its mandate, the BCCS must investigate all unnatural, sudden and unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths in B.C. Its primary aims are to identify the deceased and determine how, when, where and by what means the person died. The death is then classified as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.
According to Mikaela Robertson, the PLC’s president, the club first heard of the rise in homeless deaths after Tim Richards, a UVic law professor and former legal advocate with the Together Against Poverty Society, notified them of an article in the Times Colonist by Judith Lavoie, which was headlined “Surge in deaths reported among Victoria’s homeless.” The group then spoke to Don Evans, executive director of Our Place Society, who provided them with basic information on the deaths including names of the deceased. The five members of the PLC eventually documented 15 homeless deaths using incomplete information due to the victims living on the edge of society, according to Robertson.
“We sent a letter to the regional coroner office [Matt Brown] asking that pursuant to the [Coroners Act], they investigate these deaths, and they make a recommendation to the head coroner for an investigation,” said Robertson. On Jan. 15, 2013, when they sent their findings to the BCCS, they requested formal court proceedings with a five-person jury held to publicly review the circumstances of the deaths, or a preliminary investigation by a death review panel.
Robertson says the deaths have had a devastating impact on the Victoria homeless community, which has a very tight sense of community. According to one person who spoke to her, “Friends [are] dying almost every day.”
The BCCS has since kept in contact with the PLC, asking for clarification in some of the cases to which the PLC had referred them. “They were looking for additional information about nine of the names, and we have been in touch with them and with Our Place again and moving back and forth, and we’ve been in touch with them since we sent the letter in January,” says Robertson.
Barb McLintock, a coroner from the Victoria region of the B.C. Coroners Service, Strategic Programs, doesn’t agree that all of the reviews are needed. “Anybody that has read about the determinism of death knows that [those] living in a homeless period [have a higher death rate]. Our question is, ‘Are there any other subtle themes [that can be found] through an inquest and death review panel?’, and we are not sure of that yet, as we haven’t begun an investigation.”
McLintock said that of the 15 deaths the PLC brought to the BCCS’s attention, only two are being reviewed. The remaining 13 died in doctor care or due to natural heart attacks, bad lung conditions, liver disease, suicide and, in one case, fire asphyxiation from a fire in his makeshift shelter. According to the BCCS, there were no deaths from exposure, and at the moment, the one connection among the deceased is that they were all living in varying degrees of homelessness.
One of the BCCS’s problems with reviewing the cases that the PLC brought to its attention was incomplete documentation. “Some were well documented, but some were less so,” said McLintock of the 15 cases. “They did have names and locations, but some of them were lacking in dates of when the bodies were found.”
The BCCS will form a death review panel on the two deaths that meet its criteria; no date has been set.