‘We cannot ignore them’: How to protect unsheltered people in Canada put InFocus


One night in Terrace, B.C., a bylaw officer was checking an area of the city where people were living in tents. The temperature in Terrace, located near the coast and is about a 1,400 km drive from Vancouver, had dropped to -20.

During his rounds on that cold night of Dec. 22, 2022, he found Richard Nelson, a 54-year-old Tsimshian and Nisga’a man in his tent.

Nelson was a fisherman but after a series of deaths in their family, he struggled with alcohol and had been houseless for nearly 10 years.

His sister, Diana Guno, who is still shaken by his death, is calling for more support for people who don’t have a safe place to live.

“Homeless people are very vulnerable, they are very vulnerable people,” she told APTN’s Lee Wilson. “If nobody stands up and says, ‘Look out for me’, nobody would be there for them.”

A preliminary report from the coroner’s service in B.C. examined data from 2012 to 2021 and found that, on average, 120 people who were unsheltered died per year up until 2020. But in 2021 that number increased by 75 per cent with 247 deaths in the province.

In Canada, almost three per cent of people who make housing decisions in their household have experienced being unsheltered, according to Statistics Canada. Another 15 per cent have experienced what is called “hidden homelessness” where a person is forced to live with family and friends.

A Statistics Canada report also sheds light on the make up of people who are more likely to experience a situation where they don’t have safe, reliable shelter. First Nations people living off reserve make up 12 per cent of people who are unsheltered. Inuit make up 10 per cent and Métis make up six per cent while non-Indigenous people sit at two per cent.

Between 2010 and 2019, 38 per cent of people who were unsheltered were women.

So what can we as a society do to help people who are unsheltered – stay safe?

In Montreal…

In 2021, already grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 cases and a lack of suitable shelter space, Montreal’s urban Indigenous community was shocked when a Naskapi-Innu man was found dead near a homeless shelter that was forced to close overnight because of pandemic restrictions.

Raphael “Napa” Andre, 51, was a registered member of the community of Matimekush-Lac John in Quebec’s Cote-Nord region.

His body was found Sunday morning inside of a porta potty near The Open Door, a wet shelter catering to people who don’t have safe shelter. According to a statement from the shelter, Andre was a near-daily client.

It’s believed that Andre died of exposure, as temperatures in Montreal dipped below -10 on Saturday night.

Andre’s mother, Suzanne Andre who is Naskapi, told APTN’s Shushan Bacon and Lindsay Richardson, that her son was a “very good person” who “loved everyone.”

The image of how Napa was found is one his father, Daniel Andre, can’t shake. “We found it strange, and we were surprised he was found in the toilet,” Daniel Andre told APTN in 2021.

“We thought if it was heated – if the toilet was heated – he’d be alive. He died for nothing… really for nothing,” he added.

Suzanne said she would’ve gladly bought her son a plane ticket if he ever wanted to return home permanently.

“I think this is something that should never happen again, what happened to my son,” she explained. “I hope for all of humanity to take care of each other as human beings.”

“Those who wander the streets – those children – I think often of those children. We cannot ignore them,” she said in Naskapi.

Then in November 2021, Elisapie Pootoogook reportedly spent her last days playing a game of “cat and mouse” with metro security agents near the downtown Montreal drop-in shelter she often frequented, according to those who knew her.

“This was known at least a few days before her death,” explained David Chapman, executive director of Resilience Montreal. “She’d be in the metro, she’d see the security coming and she’d come out into the park for a bit. The security would move on, so she’d go back into the metro – and that pattern would continue.

“Well, at one point it appears she went a little further than the park.”

Around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Montreal police were alerted to the discovery of a woman’s body near the construction site of a luxury condo complex across from Cabot Square, a well-known hub for the city’s urban Indigenous population.

The woman was later identified by shelter workers as Pootoogook, 61, from Kinngait, formerly known as Cape Dorset in Nunavut.

A Montreal police spokesperson told APTN News they don’t suspect foul play, but the file has since been transferred to the Quebec coroner’s bureau for an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.

In January 2022, two people died in freezing Montreal temperatures.

Violence 

Because beside dangerously cold weather, there is also the issue of violence against people who don’t have a safe place to live or sleep.

In Toronto, police believe Ken Lee, 59, was killed by a eight teenage while on the streets. One woman who doesn’t have safe shelter told the Canadian Press that Lee’s death has left many unsheltered individuals concerned about their safety.

“There are people out there that are afraid,” said Lynn Walker, who lives in a tent in Toronto. “They’re nervous about being out in tents, being on the street and violence happening. It’s getting worse and worse every day out here.”

Diana Chan McNally, a harm reduction case manager at the non-profit All Saints Church who knew Lee, said his case has highlighted violence against people who don’t have shelter.

“I get people coming in with all kinds of injuries from being beat up by complete strangers. There’s just so much hatred and dehumanization of people who are unhoused,” she said. “(Lee’s death) is the most extreme example of that.”

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

When James Harry walks through the alleys of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where open drug use is rampant and many don’t have safe lodging, he doesn’t see hopelessness but rather potential and opportunity to help those who are suffering.

“I know how they are hurting. I know why they are hurting.  A lot of these people down here are running.  They are running from the traumas, they are running from the hurt and that what we are trying to stop,” he told APTN’s Tina House.

Harry is an outreach worker employed by his community – the Haisla Nation. He has an office at the friendship centre and works with a team that helps Indigenous people to find housing and heal from addictions and abuse. He said his main focus is to help other Haisla members get into detox, a healing centre and eventually return home.

Edwin Pfoh is one of the success stories. He said he spent 30 years drinking anything with alcohol in it. Then one day he me James Harry.

“It changed my life when he asked me if I wanted to get clean and sober,” said Pfoh of his meeting with Harry in 2020. “That was the first attempt then I relapsed that I went back to Kitimat and now where I’m at now James has played a big role he saved my life actually.”

The initiative was started three years ago by Haisla band councillor Kevin Stewart when his own family member was lost on the streets plagued by addictions issues.

“We want our people to come back home, get connected with their culture because that’s what our people did in the past,” he said. “That’s what made us well and made us understand that we need each other to move forward in our cultural ways with the connection to our land which is important to all our nations.”

Harry knows the reality of addiction and not having a safe place to live. He spent a few years down on the Downtown Eastside himself – addicted and hurting from the trauma of being a inter-generational residential school survivor.

He said those were dark days but then he had an epiphany – that he deserved better.

“It’s a beautiful thing when you see somebody,” he said of getting professional help. “Find that spark, find that life they they’ve lost it’s amazing and that’s basically my mission I want people to feel how I feel today.”

Other First Nations are following the lede of the Haisla program and hiring their own outreach workers.

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