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Uproar over homeless man's death is hypocritical

Friends, relatives and the perpetually angry assembled at a Vancouver-area park this week to mourn the death of Curtis Brick.

Mr. Brick was a 46-year-old homeless man who died while sleeping in a park during the July heat wave that hit the West Coast. For some reason, the story only recently became a television news event and got front-page treatment, helped by the sensational allegation that Mr. Brick might still be with us had the dozens of people using the park that day momentarily put down their iced lattes to take notice of the man dying on the grass nearby.

And so, at a memorial this week, there were calls for an inquest into how something like this could happen in a city like Vancouver.

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Well, let me save a bunch of taxpayers' dollars and tell you how.

Mr. Brick, we're told, had been in the park for at least six hours. We know this because the man who found him allegedly choking and in trouble had seen him in the same spot earlier that morning. Eric Schweig told a reporter that while Mr. Brick was "convulsing" and being otherwise "unresponsive," there were "hippies sitting over here dancing around, playing guitars." Others commenting on the tragedy took aim at parents playing with their kids at the water park, a Frisbee toss away from where Mr. Brick lay.

Why didn't they do something?

Well, here's the thing. There are homeless people sleeping in parks all over the city. How do we know any of them are dead or alive? How do we know they aren't dying before us? Are we to call 911 every time we see a homeless person sleeping on a bench? Or we see one coughing?

How was anyone supposed to know Mr. Brick had been lying in the park for six hours or longer? People in that park that day came and went. I doubt any of the parents using the water park were there for more than 30 minutes. They had no idea how long the man seemingly asleep on the grass had been there.

Moreover, people using that park see the homeless sleeping there all the time. How were they to know Mr. Brick was dying of dehydration, or whatever it was that caused his death? In fact, one person at the scene reportedly told paramedics that the man had consumed Lysol. But how is the average person supposed to tell the difference between someone sleeping it off and someone quietly dying?

Does anyone think that the people using the park that day would have done nothing had they known Mr. Brick was, in fact, dying? Mr. Schweig said Mr. Brick was choking. For how long we don't know. What did it look like? Like Mr. Brick was coughing? You don't choke for long before you lose consciousness. How long was this going on for? A minute? Seconds?

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I sometimes walk by people sleeping on a corner near my downtown office. Imagine if it turned out one day that one of them was actually dead. Who would know? But the headline would be: Thousands Walk By Dead Man.

Social agencies, in fact, have urged people not to disturb the homeless when they're sleeping. When I went out with a homeless advocate one night last year to see how bad the situation was in the city, she told me never to disturb a sleeping homeless person because sometimes the reaction can be violent. And this was from someone who had been dealing with homeless people for more than 20 years.

There is much about the conversation around Mr. Brick's death that seems hypocritical to me, too. I mean, no one cared about Curtis Brick before the report of his tragic death surfaced. Now, suddenly, he's a real person to whom we ascribe real value. Before, he was someone we stepped over on the way to work.

It's one thing to be angry that we live in a world where anyone has to sleep on the streets and can die there, too. But remember, when you start pointing fingers at others, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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