When 49-year-old Rick Hofs died alone behind a dollar store in Marpole two days after Christmas, he became another unfortunate statistic in a city still mired in a homelessness crisis.
His death, which came after many in his community helped him with clothing, food and money, would have gone unpublicized had a friend not contacted the Courier.
That friend, Sally Bennett, was left wondering: How many homeless people like Hofs die in Vancouver every year but their deaths never register with the public or political leaders?
The B.C. Coroners Service tracks such deaths and in October completed a report showing 168 homeless people died in the province between 2007 and 2010.
Of the 168 deaths, 45 occurred in Vancouver, the highest in the province, with Victoria (25) and Surrey (15) rounding out the top three cities. (The coroners service didn't have statistics available for 2011 and 2012.)
Though the report provides death statistics for individual municipalities, the breakdown of details such as age, gender and cause of death only relate to the overall provincial picture.
The report shows 143 of the victims were men, 25 were women and the majority were between 40 and 59 years old.
The most common cause of death was related to the use of alcohol and drugs while "natural disease" ranked second. The majority of deaths were ruled "accidental" and occurred on the street. Another 50 were residing in some form of shelter when they died.
Karen O'Shannacery, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, said the statistics are helpful in showing what happens when there is a lack of treatment, housing and outreach teams available in Vancouver and across the province.
The statistics, she added, need to have a higher profile in the public debate about ending homelessness so political leaders learn the importance of treating homeless people in their own communities.
"I've been working with homeless people for over 40 years and Rick's death just hit me all over again," O'Shannacery said Monday by telephone from her office.
As Hofs' friends told the Courier, Hofs didn't want to leave Marpole or stay at a shelter. The Courier's story on Hofs prompted O'Shannacery to write an editorial on Lookout's website, which was republished at the Courier's site at vancourier.com.
"Some individuals will not leave the area that they have lived in for many years," she wrote. "That means we need to go them."
Though she recognized the efforts of community members, O'Shannacery said there is no comprehensive outreach team or supportive housing in Marpole to establish long-term relationships with homeless people.
"What he wanted was a place to live in Marpole and if we had been able to get him a place in Marpole, then I think he would have been willing to stay - but there wasn't any place," she said in the interview.
In recent years, the city and the provincial government have worked together to open supportive housing buildings around the city, some of which Lookout manages. The definition of supportive housing means tenants have access to health and counselling services.
O'Shannacery acknowledged the efforts of some municipal leaders on the housing front but said the political will is not universal across Metro Vancouver.
She closed her editorial this way: "Let our New Year's wish [be to] take action by demanding all levels of government work together with communities to create local and realistic solutions that prevent tragedy."
The city's homeless count in March 2012 revealed 1,602 homeless in Vancouver, 306 of whom were recorded living on the street. Shelters opened recently in the city are at capacity, according to the mayor's office.
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