Canada News

In 2020, deaths doubled at BC supportive housing buildings

On Overdose Awareness Day earlier this year, community came together to mourn people lost this year and share stories on a memorial wall. (Photo by Maggie MacPherson.)

By Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

VANCOUVER – Residents and workers in supportive housing are mourning an unusually high number of residents who died in 2020 from overdoses, age-related causes and a small number of deaths from COVID-19 complications.

“It’s been a really rough year, as you see in the numbers,” said Tanya Fader, director of housing for PHS Community Services.

“It’s been really, really emotionally hard for our staff and definitely for the residents left behind.”

Data from the BC Coroners Service shows  deaths in supportive housing buildings from January to August were  double the number seen in all of 2019. In 2019, 49 people died in  buildings operated by Atira, PHS Community Services, Lookout and  RainCity. In the first seven months of 2020, 99 residents and guests  died in the buildings.

The numbers are from  buildings operated by the four major non-profit housing providers and  don’t include every supportive housing building in Metro Vancouver. Due  to the length of time it takes to process freedom of information  requests, The Tyee was only able to obtain data for the first seven  months of 2020. The data includes deaths that happened at the buildings,  not in hospitals or other locations.

The numbers mirror the rise  in deaths from overdoses this year: in 2019, an average of 81 people  died every month from poisoned drugs. In 2020, an average of 140 people  have died every month.*

With borders closed to prevent the spread  of COVID-19, illicit drugs have become even more poisoned, often with  extreme concentrations of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

Most of the supportive housing buildings  run by the four non-profits are in the Downtown Eastside, a  neighbourhood that’s been hit especially hard by the overdose crisis.  Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira, said 18 people — nine residents and nine  guests in Atira-run buildings — have died of overdoses this year.

Housing providers came under fire earlier this year when they banned visitors to their buildings during the early months of the pandemic. Vancouver  Coastal Health warned the practice could be contributing to the increase  in overdose deaths, and some tenants have said they believe the visitor  ban contributed to deaths of loved ones.

Both Atira and PHS have denied that the visitor bans, which have now been relaxed, contributed to overdose deaths.

RainCity Housing and Lookout declined to be interviewed for this story.

Fader said the high number of deaths this  year is not just a result of the overdose crisis. Tenants who have lived  in PHS buildings for decades are now aging and dying from illnesses  like cancer, heart attacks or complications after a fall.

Most of the 11 deaths at the Portland Hotel  in 2020 fell into that category. Residents are coming to the end of  their lives after experiencing years of trauma, homelessness, substance  use or chronic illnesses. But many of them aren’t accepted at long-term  care homes because they smoke, use drugs or have other issues, Fader  said.

“If residents indicate that they want to  die at home, we do everything we can to make them as comfortable as  possible and make that happen,” she said.

A few of the deaths this year have been  from COVID-19 or complications from the virus. Three Atira residents and  one PHS resident died after getting COVID, according to Abbott and  Fader. COVID-19 cases started to rise in the Downtown Eastside this fall. Vancouver Coastal Health says the  numbers for Downtown Eastside residents and workers has now declined and  are “holding steady.”

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie  Henry has said that people who live in the Downtown Eastside who come  down with COVID-19 are much more likely to need to be hospitalized than  people in other neighbourhoods.

PHS, Atira and other supportive housing  agencies have added safe consumption rooms to their buildings. But  Abbott said harm reduction can now only go so far to prevent deaths  given the more toxic drug supply.

“I absolutely support  overdose prevention sites and shared using rooms. We need them  desperately, but we have to stop pretending that they’re going to solve  the problem,” Abbott said. “People die when they’re alone. They die when  they’re with others.”

The province did promise to expand safe  supply programs in response to the soaring overdose death rate. Safe  supply is when prescription drugs are prescribed to people to replace the tainted illicit supply.

But Abbott said it’s still too difficult to get people quickly connected with safe supply. 

She said she’d like to see governments respond to the overdose crisis with the same urgency shown in their COVID-19 response.

“We need to make it accessible,” Abbott  said. “People shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or answer  questionnaires about whether they’d rather go to treatment. If the goal  is to actually keep people alive, you can worry about that stuff later.”

Fader echoed that call and added that  decriminalization could also make a difference. In November, Vancouver’s  city council voted to ask the federal government to decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use.

People who live in the Downtown Eastside  have lost many neighbours, friends and family members this year, and  COVID-19 restrictions have made it difficult for people to grieve those  losses, Fader said. Instead of holding memorial services, PHS has set up  memorial tables with candles, flowers and photographs that residents  can visit one by one. Sometimes as many as four tables have been set up  in a building at one time.

“We’re dealing already with community  members who have very traumatic backgrounds,” Fader said. “I worry about  the impact of the pandemic times, compounded onto that trauma, for both  staff and residents.”

quis Aliquam accumsan Nullam Curabitur sit vulputate, eget dapibus