Freezing deaths part of a larger problem

Tyler Clarke
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Freezing to death doesn’t take much in the harsh elements of our winters, a local man with a history on Prince Albert’s streets said this week. 

Daily Herald

Freezing to death doesn’t take much in the harsh elements of our winters, a local man with a history on Prince Albert’s streets said this week.

He’s sad but not too surprised to learn that two more people died in the elements last week. The man didn’t know Doris Ahanakew, 46, but did know John Dorion, 62, who he remembers as being a “nice guy.”

Even though he had close to nothing, Dorion would give you his last sandwich if he knew you were hungry, explained the man, who did not wish to be named.

Both freezing death victims were known at the Prince Albert YWCA, where they will be missed, chief executive officer Donna Brooks said.

“All our staff at Our House knew Doris and John -- pretty much John, because he was there pretty much every afternoon.”

Ahanakew dropped in from time to time and is remembered as being quiet. 

Staff last saw Dorion on Thursday afternoon, but whatever happened between then and about 9 a.m. on Friday when he was found frozen to death next to Ahanakew along the railroad tracks, remains a mystery.

Dorion and Ahanakew did not snow up at the YWCA shelters later on to spend the night, Brooks said.

James Benjamin Roberts, 49, also didn’t show up at any of the shelters the night that he froze to death along the railroad tracks in December.

With shelter beds not sought on any of these occasions, Brooks said that this tells her “that to prevent that from happening, there needs to be more in place than shelter beds.”

Although shelter beds are an important part of the equation, mental health and addiction services are also important, she said, adding that there’s always room for improvement.  

“How do you help people who won’t care about their own safety?” Coun. Lee Atkinson asked.

Ahanakew and Dorion’s bodies were found in Atkinson’s ward, near the downtown core that Coun. Rick Orr serves.

 “This is not one of those things where there’s no clear cut answer,” Atkinson said.

Although it’s more a bandage than a solution, the city needs to crack down on secluded areas where homeless people congregate, such as the tracks, he said.

By making these areas more visible, police and volunteer community stewards can keep a better eye on things and potentially spot people before they freeze, he reasoned.

When it comes to addressing the larger issues, Orr said that the city needs to seriously start looking at alternatives, such as a wet house -- a safe place where people can take their substances and sleep in safety.

Recognizing that this is an idea that may not sit well with a lot of people, Orr noted that it’s just an idea -- something the city needs a lot of in order to tackle its homelessness problem.

“Three this winter is beyond belief,” he said. “We really need to take action.”

All our staff at Our House knew Doris and John -- pretty much John, because he was there pretty much every afternoon. YWCA chief executive officer Donna Brooks

Margie Stark is one person who has taken action, and has devoted her life to helping the city’s homeless, offering them free clothes, food, temporary warmth and Christian teachings out of her downtown Central Avenue business, Margie’s Nu-Image.

This wasn’t Dorion’s first close call, she said.

Huddled against a Central Avenue business and covered by a blanket, a homeless person was spotted by Stark freezing in -37 C weather earlier this winter.

Concerned about the person’s well being, Stark phoned the police, who promptly came by to check on him. Under a blanket, they found a shivering Dorion.  

“He’s another one who slipped through the cracks,” Stark said -- a common but drastically varied story when it comes to the city’s homeless population.

No matter what, there’s always another option to people sleeping outside in the elements, Brooks said.

“If a person is highly intoxicated and our staff feel it may not be appropriate for them to be there, they call the police,” she said, adding that the same might happen when they’re full to capacity.

People are then sent to the city’s brief detox centre or to a jail cell for the night.

Some homeless people would rather take their chances in the elements than spend the night in a jail cell, Stark said, suggesting they fear the police more than the cold.

The solution is another homeless shelter in town -- a no strings attached, no red tape safe place for people to spend the night.

The community’s banded around the SPCA’s projects, raising more than half of the $3.14-million goal in their New Leash on Life Campaign, she noted.

“These people would be happy to move into the (current) shelter for the dogs,” Stark said. “Then, they wouldn’t have to freeze to death in an alley.” 

In the end, Orr hopes that people recognize that the people who froze to death are more than just generic homeless people.

“These are citizens,” he said, noting that Friday didn’t see the loss of two homeless people, but “two lives.”

A memorial services for Dorion, Ahanakew and Roberts will be held at the Prince Albert Indian Metis Friendship Centre at 2 p.m.

“The homeless community is a very tight-knit community,” Brooks said, adding that the event is a continuation of the healing circle held at YWCA’s Our House facility on Friday.

Tuesday’s event, open to the public, is a means of carrying people who knew Dorion, Ahanakew and Roberts along their healing journey.

“They were loved,” Brooks said of the three victims. “Those were the good ones.” 

Organizations: Prince Albert, Our House, YWCA

Geographic location: Central Avenue

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