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Comment: Why are people dying on Victoria's streets?

Oct 04 2012

Despite our status as one of the world's wealthiest industrialized nations, people are not only living, but dying, on the streets because of poverty. And the past few months in Victoria have been one of the darkest times in recent memory.

The street community and their caregivers are reeling from an unprecedented number of deaths this summer - 30 people have died since June. Who are these people and why are they dying? They are family members - sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers - and perhaps a few grandparents, though many die before they reached that milestone.

Robbie was only 28, tall, with curly hair with a gentle spirit - and a serious mental illness. He lived and died alone in a downtown hotel. Tom, only 43 and homeless, died a horrible death trying to keep warm. He caught fire and died several hours later as a result of his burns. Tami, who died in her sleep, had just turned 40. She was an attractive, boisterous and passionate woman; a mother to seven children, so loved that Our Place had its largest-ever memorial in her honour.

Thirty people. They all had stories, but the common theme was that they were all poor. Poverty is a key determinant of health. Statistics Canada puts it bluntly: "Poverty makes people unhealthy and poverty kills."

Why do so many among us live in such dire situations? Perhaps for some, poor life choices have led to bad outcomes, but that is far too simplistic a view on a complex issue.

As a nation, we have not invested sufficiently in affordable housing. The average rent for a bachelor suite is $685 in this city and yet the basic allowance for accommodation on income assistance for a single person is $375 a month. We have also invested inadequately in health care focused on mental health and addictions. Choices for our most vulnerable citizens are limited; poverty and the mental illnesses and addictions that often go hand in hand are chronic.

Thirty deaths associated with poverty in a city our size over a four-month period is a real tragedy. It tells us how poorly we are caring for our most disadvantaged citizens. And we should all care because the way we treat the most vulnerable among us is a reflection of who we are as a society.

We may not all be rich, but we are almost all better off than these 30. We can afford to help. Whether we directly support the work of community organizations like Our Place and others, write letters to politicians or rally and vote for better solutions, every contribution is important. Whichever step we take, the important thing is to take it.

As Margaret Mead suggests, "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has."

Don Evans is executive director of Our Place Society.

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