Eight people have died at a temporary North Vancouver supportive housing facility since March 2022, according to the BC Housing contractor.
That is four times the number that the Ministry of Housing originally told a reporter.
During the Oct. 16 Question Period, BC United housing critic Karin Kirkpatrick (West Vancouver-Capilano) challenged Premier David Eby to investigate living conditions at the former Travelodge Lions Gate motel on Marine Drive.
“Neighbours have reached a breaking point,” Kirkpatrick said in the Legislature. “They report to me that people are dying and being removed from the Travelodge in body bags. Now, we owe vulnerable British Columbians better than that.”
Instead of Eby, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon delivered the government response, but he did not acknowledge or dispute the claim of deaths.
Kirkpatrick did not mention any numbers, so a reporter asked the Ministry of Health.
A statement from the Ministry on Oct. 17, via communications manager Tasha Schollen, said two people had died since March 2022 and cited contractor Lu’ma Native Housing Society as the source. The Ministry said BC Housing reviews incidents, especially involving a death, to avoid similar circumstances, and that the government is “deeply saddened by any loss of life.”
But B.C. Coroners Service spokesperson Ryan Panton said there had been six deaths investigated in the period. He declined to provide dates or causes of each death, due to privacy protocols.
“It should be noted that not all deaths meet the reporting criteria outlined in Part 2 of the Coroners Act, so it is possible that additional deaths may have occurred at this location that were not reported to our agency,” Panton said.
The law requires a person to report to a coroner or peace officer when a death occurs that involves violence, accident, neglect, self-inflicted illness or injury, pregnancy or when a person who is not treated by a medical practitioner dies suddenly and unexpectedly or by disease or sickness.
Lu’ma CEO Marcel Lawson Swain, director of housing operations Barbara Lawson Swain and executive director Mary Uljevic did not respond to interview requests.
In an Oct. 18 interview, Mike Walker, the lawyer for Lu’ma, originally said there had been five deaths since March 2022, one of which occurred prior to Lu’ma assuming full responsibility for the site. Walker revised the amount to eight in a Thursday interview: five from natural causes, two from overdoses and one from a collision with a charter bus.
He said he did not know the dates. One incident, however, received substantial publicity. A man in his 50s, who Walker said was a member of the Squamish Nation, died of his injuries after being run over by a charter bus on Aug. 23. The man had been on the sidewalk next to the bus lane, just outside the Travelodge.
In early 2020, the province leased a third of the Travelodge rooms in order to ease overcrowding at homeless shelters due to the pandemic and hired Lookout Housing and Health Society as the operator. By March 2022, BC Housing leased all suites and switched operators from Lookout to Lu’ma. The transition was complete by the end of June 2022.
Walker said that there are generally five people working the dayshift, including two support workers, a program manager, maintenance worker and homemaker. Overnight, at least two people are on-site. Policy dictates staff check-off a list of the residents they see. If any are not seen after three consecutive eight-hour shifts, a wellness check protocol begins with phone calls to suites and escalates to door knocking and entering, if necessary.
“We would never want to be cavalier about a human life. But, nonetheless, balancing respect for privacy, with people’s safety, with people’s health, with well-being of the neighbourhood,” Walker said.
Schollen said Oct. 20 that Kahlon was not available for an interview. She sent a statement five hours later, attributed to Kahlon.
“Any death that occurs is tragic. The province, through BC Housing, offers supportive housing and complex care housing for our most vulnerable citizens with a wide range of supports for people living with a variety of challenges,” read the statement. “We will continue to work with our services providers to help individuals to access safe and stable housing.”
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