Homelessness
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Homeless Memorial Day vigil held in Victoria as report shows Island deaths rising to new highs

64 Islanders died without homes last year—more than twice as many as most previous annual totals‍

Robyn Bell
December 22, 2023
Homelessness
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Homeless Memorial Day vigil held in Victoria as report shows Island deaths rising to new highs

64 Islanders died without homes last year—more than twice as many as most previous annual totals‍

Robyn Bell
Dec 22, 2023
Community members gather to mourn those they've lost. Photo by Robyn Bell
Community members gather to mourn those they've lost. Photo by Robyn Bell
Homelessness
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Homeless Memorial Day vigil held in Victoria as report shows Island deaths rising to new highs

64 Islanders died without homes last year—more than twice as many as most previous annual totals‍

Robyn Bell
December 22, 2023
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Homeless Memorial Day vigil held in Victoria as report shows Island deaths rising to new highs
Community members gather to mourn those they've lost. Photo by Robyn Bell

This Thursday marked National Memorial Day for Persons Experiencing Homelessness, with vigils held Canada-wide. In Victoria, it took place in its usual spot, next to the Whale Wall at Reeson Park, by the Blue Bridge (now the Johnson Bridge). The wall was chosen back in 2006 when the Committee to End Homelessness Victoria first began holding these vigils in the capital.

“It’s not just because it’s a pretty wall—this is where the banished went,” explained the Committee’s David Tataryn. He says this is no longer the case for the area, but they continue to honour this spot for outcasts that may have been overlooked by society.

Recent report shows new high for lives lost

This year’s vigil came soon after the release of a report from the BC Coroners Service, which outlined the number of deaths of people experiencing homelessness, with Victoria and the Island seeing their highest numbers yet.

Of the 342 people in BC who died while homeless in 2022, 28 were in Victoria, with 64 on the Island in total. The Island number is more than double the total of any year from 2016-2020, and more than quadruple the total of 15 for 2015. It continues a rise that began in 2021, when 47 Islanders and 267 BC residents died, compared to 23 Islanders and 144 BC residents the year prior. 

Homeless deaths by year, per BC Coroners Service

The tally include people living outdoors, in cars, and in makeshift shelters, as well as people in emergency overnight shelters, short-term shelters, safe houses, transition houses while fleeing violence, and temporary stays with others. About half who died were unsheltered, and most were men.

Victoria was among the top three townships with the highest number of deaths, behind Vancouver and Surrey.

These deaths spiked in the winter months for 2022, with 40 deaths occurring in BC in both January and December—the highest monthly total so far. The memorial day always falls on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, in symbolism of the difficulty posed by the winter months.

Drug toxicity a massive factor

This trend is similar to that seen with toxic drug deaths, with experts saying cold weather months lead people to use drugs alone indoors. 

Accidental deaths made up 81% of all deaths of unhoused people between 2015-2022 (vs. 11% natural causes and 5% self-caused), per the report, with 91% of those accidental deaths tied to toxic drugs.

“The toxic drug supply is having a very devastating effect [on the Victoria homeless community],” said Andrew Holeton, director of engagement at the Alliance to End Homelessness. “It’s important to recognize that not everyone experiencing homelessness is struggling with substance issues, but it’s definitely had an effect.”

Vigil speakers call for compassion from general public

At the Victoria vigil, around 20 people gathered in a circle holding candles and sharing stories of loved ones lost while living without housing. One sentiment speakers came back to was the need for kindness toward unhoused people—from police, politicians and the Victoria community as a whole.

This week's vigil at the Whale Wall

“This crisis is solvable but it takes all of us and it’s important for people to remember that,” said Holeton. “People aren’t alright. We need a more involved community.”

Holeton says that looking to other cities that have taken a compassionate approach to encampments could offer a framework for Greater Victoria to handle homelessness in a way that protects our most vulnerable.

“I don’t think taking away survival equipment helps, it’s not a good use of resources,” said Holeton, referencing bans on camping in parks and seizures of property on public land. 

“We need to think carefully about whether what we’re doing is contributing to the problem or moving toward solving it and preventing it.

Victoria's iconic "Whale Wall" mural, painted by Robert Wyland. It overlooks Reeson waterfront park where the annual vigil is held. Photo by WriterGal39

Victoria council continued to expand the list of parks with shelter bans in 2023, with four more added in November

“Until the housing is built, people are suffering and there are better ways for municipalities to respond with kindness and caring,” said Holeton, saying immediate priorities include heat, sanitation, and healthcare in order to ease day-to-day suffering.

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Robyn Bell
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