A biannual update on life-expectancy among people living rough in Hamilton is suggesting 43 is now the average age of death for a person experiencing homelessness in the city, a number largely affected by drug abuse.
Both ages are far lower than Statistics Canada data which suggests the average Hamiltonian’s life expectancy is 81, based on numbers recorded between 2014 and 2016.
Dr. Claire Bodkin, a family physician and co-author of the data “Deaths in the Hamilton Homeless Population,” said at least 10 people without residences died in the city during the six month period between December 2021 and May 2022.
The data, retrieved primarily from those connected with local shelters, says drug abuse is the number one cause of death, contributing to eight of 10 deaths.
“The first thing that jumps out to me is the high proportion of overdose deaths,” Bodkin told Global News.
“So we saw that last time as well, … but the proportion is 80 per cent this time which I think really points to the toxic drug policy that we have. This environment of prohibition which has led to an increasingly volatile, unpredictable, toxic drug supply, which is very difficult for people to know what they’re using.”
Two others died from more common afflictions experienced by the general public, heart disease and cancer.
Seven of the ten died in city shelters while a pair died in a hospital and one on a city street.
Six died between December and January.
Four of the deceased had been homeless more than 12 months while three were experiencing periodic episodes of homelessness during the past year.
Nine of the ten deaths were men, according to the report.
Bodkin says compared to the previous study, which took place during spring and fall of 2021, there was a significant drop in deaths among those living rough.
Just 10 deaths in the latest period compared to the 19 without residences that died during the previous six month period in 2021.
She admits the study, co-authored with internal medicine resident physician Dr. Inna Berditchevskaia at McMaster University, is from a voluntary reporting system relying on social service agencies as well as health-care providers coming forward with data.
“So we think it’s likely that there are deaths that we’ve missed, and we can’t actually say that there’s been a decrease in the absolute number of deaths, just that there’s been a decrease in the number of deaths reported,” said Bodkin.
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Ultimately, the two doctors believe the data supports a need for focus on interventions like low barrier opioid agonist treatment, safe drug supply and a second or more consumption and treatment sites in the city.
Currently, the city only has a single permanent safe consumption site at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on James Street South.
That site is in the midst of being replaced with a location on Cannon Street East by September 2023, according to a timeline from the city.
Bodkin believes that the three levels of government should explore the premise of “safe drug use spaces” as a condition for receiving shelter funding.
“Particularly the ones that receive municipal funding – which is I believe all of them – should be looking at what are the things we can do to rapidly intervene and offer these overdose prevention sites,” Bodkin said.
Year-over-year public health numbers show a decline in overall paramedic responses to suspected opioid overdoses.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 25, the city data says calls dropped from 697 in 2021 to 581 during the same period in 2022.
In August, Hamilton councillors supported calls for decriminalization of the possession of illegal drugs for personal use via a vote requesting inclusion in a federal pilot project that’s already been cleared for British Columbia.
The city is also supporting more stringent penalties on the illegal manufacture of some drugs and a call for the federal government to scale up prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.
Bodkin says she’s “pleased” to see Hamilton’s board of health recognizing recommendations from the Canadian Center for Drug Policy Coalition and other organizations creating a dialogue with people who use drugs across the country.
“I was really pleased to see that the board of health was looking to the experts in trying to understand the way that this policy could be implemented,” said Bodkin.