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Vancouver homeless need their belongings accounted for, critics say

When British Columbia Housing Minister Rich Coleman last week introduced the Assistance to Shelter Act, he said the legislation would "help to prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred last winter when a woman died trying to keep warm in a makeshift shelter."

But a coroner's report into the death of Dawn Amanda Bergman, who died early in the morning on Dec. 19, 2008, says Ms. Bergman turned down police offers of help because she was reluctant to risk losing the cart that carried her belongings.

"Officers offered to assist her in finding shelter off the street," says the coroner's report into the death of Ms. Bergman, 46. "However, she refused, stating shelters around Vancouver did not allow for carts."

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Of about 25 homeless shelters in Vancouver, only three - the remaining facilities from a group of five HEAT (Homeless Emergency Action Team) sites set up late last year - officially accommodate carts.

For critics of the legislation, the cart issue highlights concerns that the law, while well-intentioned, may result in some homeless people avoiding police and outreach workers out of fear they could lose their belongings.

"It's a real problem - how are [police]going to transport people and their belongings?" Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang said Friday.

Emergency cold-weather shelters are often set up in spaces such as church basements or community centres that don't have the space or staff to set up and monitor secure storage space for carts, he added.

"Ideally, all shelters should have secure storage space, but whether they're able to provide it, is another question," Dr. Jang said.

The legislation gives police the right to take people deemed at risk of harm from cold weather to a shelter, but does not give police the right to force those people to stay at the facilities.

Ms. Bergman had an extensive history of drug and alcohol abuse as well as mental health issues, the coroner's report says.

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She lived on the streets of the downtown core, around the area of Davie and Hornby streets, and kept her belongings in a "metal, flat top cart with metal screen sides" and was known to sleep inside the cart.

On the night of Dec. 18, during a cold snap that had prompted an extreme weather warning for the city, police spotted Ms. Bergman inside her makeshift shelter, where she was bundled up in layers of clothes and under several blankets.

"She was checked three times, owing to reports of someone crying inside her shelter. Ms. Bergman acknowledged it was she who was making noise because the two candles she used to keep warm had gone out. She borrowed an officer's lighter to light them, and received a cigarette," the report says.

She rejected offers of help, was angry at being woken up and wanted to be left alone.

Police last checked on her at midnight. At about 4:30 a.m., someone called 911 to report a fire, saying he could see a body "sitting upright in the flames, arms at their side and knees slightly bent.

After putting out the fire, emergency crews found "many combustibles" in the cart, along with illicit drug equipment and the top of a lighter.

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There were no signs that Ms. Bergman made any attempt to escape the blaze, suggesting that "as she slept, the burning candles came in contact with material that smouldered for a period of time leading to a significant level of carbon monoxide in the blood and soot in the airway."

Her body was severely charred.

The cause of death, classified as accidental, was smoke inhalation and thermal injury due to a fire caused by candles in a makeshift shelter. Illicit drug use was listed as a significant condition contributing to death.

The report dated Aug. 4 has two recommendations: during the winter months, the City of Vancouver establish programs where street-entrenched individuals can secure their buggies/carts; and that the location of these programs be made available to social service providers and non-profit groups.

On the night of Ms. Bergman's death, the first of several low-barrier shelters - which let people keep their carts and sometimes their pets - opened in the downtown core. Two of those shelters, under the Granville Street bridge and across a back alley from one another, were closed this summer after an angry outcry from area residents.

Three continue to operate. The City of Vancouver has about 25 shelters that provide about 700 spaces. Throughout the province, there are about 1,500 shelter beds, with an additional 1,200 available during extreme weather.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More


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