Last week’s freezing death of James Benjamin Roberts, 49, has spurred outrage from Prince Albert residents who are worried it may happen again.
Roberts, known in the community as Ben, was found frozen to death behind a retail store in Prince Albert’s Cornerstone Shopping District on Dec. 4.
He was part of a group of homeless people downtown business owner Margie Stark helped out a few days prior, when they came knocking on her door on Central Avenue.
“I said, who’s going to be in next? Who’s going to freeze this year, because there’s been one almost every year,” she said, adding that she cautioned them to stay indoors.
“I gave them all toques and gloves, and one needed a jacket, and away they went.”
Roberts’ story is that of many homeless people in Prince Albert, Stark said, in that he fell through the cracks of society and was left without a place in this world.
“Ben … was very, very nice,” she said. “He wasn’t a trouble-maker. He was quiet, he just has a problem with the drinking.”
Prince Albert YWCA executive director Donna Brooks said that her staff had also dealt with Roberts -- always a pleasant experience, she noted.
“He was very quiet … I’d heard nothing bad about him,” she said.
“He stopped at Our House -- we get a number of walk-ins who stop in and have coffee and warm up, and he would stop by as a walk-in client a couple times a week.”
Although they’re typically at capacity, the YWCA had one bed open on Dec. 4. Unfortunately, Roberts had stopped spending the night at their facility in 2008.
“Sometimes clients don’t want to necessarily stay in a shelter, because staying in a shelter has a few expectations,” Brooks said. “You have to address your issues to move on, so sometimes they would rather not do that.”
But, she noted, that wouldn’t have mattered.
“We would still provide the service and the outreach,” She said. “There would have been no problem with him staying that night.”
Hours prior to his death, it’s been reported that Roberts was asked to leave a retail outlet, prompting a group of about a dozen local residents to band together to form a committee.
“They should have called the police, and the police would have taken them away and kept him alive,” group spokesperson Larry Zapp said.
The Citizens Concerned About the Homeless Freezing to Death in Prince Albert Committee is calling on the community to look out for the city’s homeless population.
“They need a warm place with the winter coming on,” he said.
Sgt. Kelly McLean said that it’s fairly common for businesses to turn people away who are clearly not there to shop.
“I know some stores have difficulties with things like that, they ask the people to move on and generally speaking, the majority of the time, that’s what happens,” he said of their ejection.
“They move on to another place that they know they can step into for a few minutes to get warm while the weather’s cold, but generally speaking, from a policing point of view, we didn’t see anything that (the retail outlet’s) staff did wrong.
Ben … was very, very nice ... He wasn’t a trouble-maker. He was quiet, he just has a problem with the drinking - Margie Stark
“They’re well within the confines of the law to ask that person to leave.”
Accompanying their expulsion from the premises should be some thought as to where they’ll go next, Parkland Ambulance director of public affairs Lyle Karasiuk said.
“Try to do your very best to summon some sort of help for them,” he urges.
“Rather than throw someone out on the street, phone the police for them, phone the paramedics … rather than just ‘get out of my building, I don’t want you anymore!’”
With the temperatures dropping through the winter, it doesn’t take long for someone to freeze to death, he cautioned.
“One of the first signs of hypothermia, besides the physical signs that we’re going to see, is confusion and feeling of tiredness,” he said.
“So someone wandering around like that, we have to intervene.”
The first step is to get them some place warm as soon as possible, he said.
“If they don’t start to improve quickly, or you notice that their face is covered in white blotches and they’re not shivering at all, then you obviously need to get some help coming,” Karasiuk said.
“Once they get to that point where they’re not shivering anymore, we’re looking at a few minutes before they will slip into unconsciousness and die.”
There’s no reason for anyone to get to this point, Brooks said.
“They shouldn’t have to sleep outside … There’s always something,” she said.
If the YWCA is full, or if the person in question is intoxicated, they typically call Mobile Crisis, who can provide shelter, or the city police, who are able to bring them to the brief detox centre or the police cells.
This shouldn’t just apply to the YWCA, Brooks said. Members of the public should have their eyes open for people in need, too.
“Don’t just ignore that,” she said. “Particularly in the winter months, because a person can freeze to death very quickly in our climate. Phone the city police -- they’re quick to deal with that.”
“People don’t have their hearts in helping other people,” Stark said, upset over what happened to Roberts.
“That’s why I closed down that selling room,” she added, pointing to a room midway into her downtown business, Margie’s Nu-Image, where she lets homeless people warm up. “That could make a lot more money for me, but I closed it down.”
Looking out for others is part of what being a good citizen is all about, Karasiuk said, not only for the city’s homeless population, but neighbours, as well.
“Don’t be shy to just tap on the door and see how they’re doing, because heaven forbid their furnace should go out,” he said.
“You don’t have a lot of time. We’re talking some very short time before literally their body will stop functioning.”