In 2007, a man’s body was found in a dumpster near Maryview School. Although he was not known among the homeless community, his death once again brought the plight of the homeless into public view.
Previous to that, a man burned to death in his tent in a bush camp for homeless people, and at that time people briefly turned their attention to the precarious lives of people with no home.
It’s known as “sleeping rough,” and “rough” is a pretty good description of the practice.
Just recently, on two occasions, people have discovered bodies outdoors, and at least one of these events clearly bears the hallmarks of “sleeping rough.”
Police have not yet confirmed this recent death as that of a homeless person, but it’s not too hard to come to that conclusion. Who else would sleep in dense woods in the median between the northbound and southbound lanes of Hwy 2 — in a freakishly frozen October?
Despite our city’s efforts to find haven for all, there will always be those who cannot use a shelter because they’re intoxicated, or the mat program because they may be afraid of someone they might find there, or for whom other housing options have not yet been found.
It’s not fair to blame the city or its agencies for the fact that there will always be someone sleeping rough. But at this time of year, the practice is fearsomely unpleasant and dangerous. As one’s health deteriorates from living in the street during the day and in a bush tent at night, life expectancy drops pretty fast.
And so we’ve had two deaths already this year. If we focus on this as an aspect of homelessness only, we’ll be missing a much larger picture.
People burning or freezing in their sleeping bags is only a small slice of a situation that’s not getting much better, despite the work of social agencies and civic politicians.
Sure, we have shelters and other housing options, but as much patching as we apply, the cracks seem as wide as ever.
If hospital psych wards take people who have been moved out of long-term care institutions, others whose illness is not quite as severe will go to the “community options” that the province has promised to provide, if not explain right now what they are.
If people don’t even get assessments ordered by the courts, how will ordinary people get help when schizophrenia or depression causes them to avoid seeking help on their own?
Mental illness is a leading cause of homelessness and addiction. If we’re reducing bed spaces in institutions for people from the top down, what happens to the bottom?
Mentally ill people routinely get themselves kicked out of community options, and instead of rising up the ladder of care, they will get pushed down further.
Is “sleeping rough” a care option now? Will it be up to local charities, to keep mentally ill and addicted people from dying at night?
Being mentally ill or addicted will make you homeless. Being homeless will shorten your life.
Everyone on this earth will eventually die; people die in our Housing First programs. But freezing or burning in a tent, alone with one’s demons, is inhumane.
The larger picture is that after the province is finished cost-cutting on care for the mentally ill, the best efforts of non-profits to patch the gaps will have come to nought.
The people who die in the park will be the ones who weren’t reached by outreach workers, who were handling other cases for people who couldn’t get assessments or care, because the places were taken by those who got themselves kicked out of community options, after they lost their institutional beds.
It’s a sad province we live in.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.