Monday, July 16, 2007

Homelessness: A deadly toll on life.

When someone dies, we mourn. Ceremonies are held in which we tell stories about their lives. We toast their many achievements, talk about the difference they made in our lives and our world.

Since the beginning of the year, 24 former and current clients of the Drop-In have passed away. It’s been a record year thus far, doubling in the first 7 months of the year the number of clients who died in 2006. Five of the individuals were murdered. Their assailants remain ‘at large’.

The deceased ranged in age from 18 to 62, with the average being 47 years old. Predominantly men, four of the deceased were women, the most recent being the fatal stabbing of Jackie Crazybull by unknown assailants in the early morning hours of July 11 on 17th Avenue S.W.

There’s very little to say about someone who died homeless. We try to find words to make sense of their passing. That make sense of what happened to their lives. But, there are few words that make sense of the tragedy of a life lost to addictions, abuse, homelessness. There are few words to describe the difference they have made in anyone’s life. In the end, their passing is marked by a single entry in the Drop-In log; Deceased. There’s very little to tell about who the individual was before they found their way to the Drop-In, and little to tell about who they became if they left. Just a simple entry. One word. And a life is over. Deceased. There will be no more entries under their name.

Looking back through the log book, however, the tragedy of their lives becomes apparent. The entries describe lives in disarray. Lives under stress. Lives on a downhill slide. Staff note their interactions with the individuals in terse and simple words. No emotion. No colour. Just the simple facts.

“Norma (all names are fictitious) started three fights on the first floor before being asked to leave. She refused. CPS were called and escorted her off property.”

“At 1:30pm, Glen walked into the Drop-In complaining of sharp pain coming from his abdomen. EMS was already here on another call and assessed him. They transported to hospital.”

“Stuart was drinking on the second floor. He was carrying a plastic bag that had a punctured can of beer in it. The beer leaked all through the 2nd floor and down the stairs. Stuart was given a 14 day bar due to his history of repeated attempts to consume alcohol on the premises. Staff Joe cleaned up the mess.”

These are not life stories to write books about. They are not epitaphs to a life well-lived in which people grieve their passing but celebrate the memories of their having passed through their lives. The ending of their stories speaks of the desperation, the trauma and the pain of lives out of control. Of spirits buried beneath the day-to-day grind of trying to find reason in what appears to be a senseless life leading to an even more senseless death.

Death is the inevitable outcome of life. It’s the timing, however, the youth of the individuals who have died, that makes it hard to grasp, hard to understand, hard to accept. Something is very wrong. Something needs to change.

In Canada, the death rate for 2007 is estimated to be 7.86 deaths/1,000 population[1] . Using a similar extrapolation, and based on a homeless population of 3,436[2], at an anticipated 13.8 deaths/1,000 for 2007, the death rate for anyone who is homeless, or has experienced homelessness is almost double the Canadian rate. In comparison, death by motor vehicle collision is currently 10.7 per 100,000 and suicide deaths are 15.2 per 100,000.

Being homeless is deadly. It strips away dignity. It tears apart families. Destroys self-esteem. Health plummets. Self-pride leaks away. Homelessness kills.

This is not a life anyone would consciously choose. It is not a life with many choices. Being homeless is not a dream come true. It’s a nightmare that no matter where or when you wake-up, leaves you with a hang-over of despair and regret. Sometimes, the fall into homlessness is an abrupt pulling out of the underpinnings of someone’s life. A sudden loss of job. A sky-rocketing rent increase. The unanticipated and sometimes violent ending of a relationship. Sometimes, it’s an imperceptible slide from a life you knew to one that is totally foreign. Sometimes, it’s a case of a familial cycle remaining unbroken. Whatever the cause or inciting incident, addictions, mental health, family violence, break-up of families, poverty, homelessness is not a healthy choice for anyone. And no one deserves what they get.

Since the beginning of the year, five homeless individuals have been stabbed on Calgary streets. The body count is a sad testament to the fragility of life without a home. It is a damming statement of a society that has not come to grips with what we need to do to help those who cannot help themselves. No matter the circumstances leading to someone wearing the label, Homeless, no one deserves to be killed on the streets they call home.

[1] CIA: The World Factbook,
[2] City of Calgary 2006 Homeless Count. Released Wed Jul 19, 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This guy is kind of crazy but he's right. We need to get tough with the people who run the state mental health systems.