Homeless man dies of exposure in suburban park (or what to do when you see someone passed out in public)


Battalion Park in the SW community of Signal Hill. Photo by Chuck Szmurlo. Licensed through the Creative Commons.

CALGARY, AB, APRIL 14, 2016 — After an uncharacteristically warm spring week, an overnight frost claimed the life of of a homeless person on Wednesday evening. The 34-year-old male was found by a jogger early Thursday morning in Battalion Park, in the southwest suburban community of Signal Hill.

“I saw him lying on the side of the pathway and called 911. I don’t know how long he’d been there. I’m surprised no one saw him earlier,” said Mariah Smith, who was running in the area. The park is frequented by recreational users and sees heavy pedestrian and bike traffic at all hours of the day.

EMS took the man to hospital, but doctors were unable to resuscitate him. Foul play is not suspected, but police are asking for anyone who may have information to come forward.”

Thankfully, the story above never made it to press.

If you read nothing else, when you find someone passed out in public call the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program (DOAP) Team 24/7 at 403-998-7388. (More info here: http://www.calgary.ca/cps/Pages/Community-programs-and-resources/Vulnerable-persons/Vulnerable-persons.aspx)

For the full story and some social commentary, read on.

I was out for a walk along my old running route, the pathway underneath the white numbers on Battalion Park. It was just before sunset, and there were several other people on the pathway, as is normal for that time of day. I didn’t see him at first because he was curled up in a ball and his sweater blended in with the grass, but I saw people who were coming my way who kept looking at the same spot on the ground. I realized it was a person, so I went to make sure he was conscious and to call the DOAP Team to pick him up. He woke up pretty quickly and asked me to call the DOAP Team, so I figured he was a regular client of theirs. He was shivering and only wearing a light sweater. He also told me his name was Joe and that he had been there for about three hours.

The only other folks to stop were a couple that were doing laps on the stairs, so I had them keep an eye on him while I got him some tea to keep him warm. The DOAP Team arrived shortly after, and everyone walked away from the situation relieved.

What I found immediately distressing was the almost dozen people in the immediate vicinity who were, either inadvertently or willfully, completely oblivious to Joe. Granted, Signal Hill is a pretty bourgeois neighbourhood, and, at 10km away from the downtown core, is outside of the range of most homeless persons. So, I can grant my neighbours the understanding that perhaps they’re not used to seeing homelessness (much less in their own neighbourhood), or they don’t know what to do in this situation (understandable if you’re not accustomed to seeing homeless persons), or they’re afraid of homeless persons (unfortunate, but also understandable).

As I walked home, I had the inner (supposedly)-more-mature-social-researcher calm down the inner incensed-former-political-activist.

I get that people are busy. I was too–I had to go to the bank, I had to pick up some tax software, I had to get some supplies for the office, etc. But society doesn’t ask us to be heroes and take matters into our own hands; it just asks that we know to call in the people who have the training to deal with a situation. There are social agencies that help people in the situation that Joe was experiencing. Yes, passed out homeless people can be scary, and they can smell bad, and they can be unpredictable, and even dangerous. But, at the end of the day, they have names, they have family, and they are people just like all of us.

It’s easy to rationalize not helping someone when you don’t know what to do, so I’ll do you a favour and tell you what to do: call the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program (DOAP) Team at 403-998-7388. The DOAP Team is one of the City of Calgary’s crisis response teams that help vulnerable persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They operate 24/7/365 and will go anywhere in the City to pick up someone and take them to an addictions treatment facility. It’s an alternative to calling 911 in a non-emergency situation. There is more info about the DOAP Team here: http://www.calgary.ca/cps/Pages/Community-programs-and-resources/Vulnerable-persons/Vulnerable-persons.aspx.

Often times, they are the people to call, though if there is an emergency and there is an immediate danger to you, the person in distress, or anyone else, of course you should call 911 immediately.

Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in the inner city since high school, I didn’t learn about the DOAP Team until I started working downtown. Now I keep their number on my phone, and this isn’t the first time I’ve called them, nor will it be the last.

I really do believe that the vast majority of people want to help but simply don’t know how and are afraid to do so. That is understandable. But, I hope that learning what one can do in this situation will help alleviate that anxiety about doing something.

I checked the forecast again, and it doesn’t look like it will rain or freeze tonight, but just because Joe probably would have survived the night in his long-sleeved shirt doesn’t mean it should have taken three hours for someone to call for help. We’re better than that, Calgary.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve told people about the DOAP Team, so I thought I’d write up this post. Please share it to spread the word.

Hanging on: my first crit race

Clipipty-clop, clippty-clop, whoosh! I almost slipped on the tile floor of the swimming pool lobby as I dashed out of the bathroom and back to my bike. Fighting off a cold and dehydrated, I had chugged a bottle of Gatorade half an hour before, and, of course, the need to pee didn’t arrive until right before my group was supposed to stage. I clipped in and rode the three blocks to the start line just as other riders in my group were finishing a warm-up lap. My Garmin watch told me my heart rate was at 160bpm. I guess I’m warmed up.

It was my first criterium race.

Criterium races (or ‘crits’) are like cycling’s version of Formula One: riders race around a circuit for a set time, and then a set number of laps after the time has elapsed. Being in the beginner ‘C’ group, we were to go for 20 minutes and then three additional laps. While this wasn’t a formal race (but, rather, a ‘midweek’ race that is more for training and practice), I was sick, thirsty, tired, and jittery.


A photo from a Midweek Mayhem race I watched in 2013.

I made a mental checklist of everything the race organizers covered at the orientation session the day before.

“Keep your head up and your hands in the drops.”

“Don’t overlap wheels.”

“Pick your line and stick to it.”

The race manager gives us the go-ahead, and we were off to a neutral start for the first lap.

We took off at what seemed like a reasonable pace. (I had my watch, but I was smart enough to not look at it during the race.) After the first turn, I checked in with myself. “Priority one is to not crash out. Priority two is to hang on as long as you can before you get lapped.”

We quickly rounded turn two–the 80 degree one–and came a slightly downhill sloping section of the 1.2 km course. The pace seemed to quicken ever so slightly.

Two more turns and we passed the start line, and then one rider immediately attacks. The pack gets stretched out, but I see a handful of riders take off after the attacker. There are two riders in front of me who didn’t seem like they were going to give chase, so I passed them on the outside to try and hold on to the chase group.

I lost track of what happened after that. All I can remember are sensations and fragments of thoughts–my heart racing, my ragged breathing, my parched throat, the burning sensation in my legs.

I stayed more or less in the same area of the pack throughout the race. I traded places with one guy from Dead Goat and another guy from Speed Theory a few times.

When we passed the twenty minute mark, and the pace picked up for our first of three final laps.

Going into the second lap, I noticed myself feathering the brakes more often. Were we going slower? Are these guys tired, or holding back?

Bam! As soon as we rounded the first turn of the final lap, someone jumps again. I don’t see who, just a thinning pack in front of me. I jumped on the pedals and passed a couple of riders who weren’t as quick to respond. Things settled going into turn three.

I remembered that I should be near the front for the final sprint, so I moved up right before turn four, and as we rounded that final turn, I stared pedaling harder, only to see more than a handful of bodies pass me through to the finish line.

Still dizzy from the effort of the final lap, I laughed. “Still not much of a sprinter,” I say to myself.

But the sprint training can wait another day.

The pack settled back together for the warm-down lap, and there were smiles all around as we congratulated each other on a great first race. I was pleased that I managed to not be lapped–at least this time around.

Looking at the stats afterwards, I was surprised–not with how fast the pack was going, but that I had been able to keep up. In less than half an hour, we covered 16km, and averaged 37km/h. On the final lap, we were averaging 41km/h, which is still a far cry from the Strava record set on that course, which had an average speed of 51km/h, but, given that I hadn’t even participated in so much as a Gran Fondo, I’m happy with how I managed.

I stayed around to be a course marshal for the ‘B’ group, which was amazing, given that they were going noticeably faster than us. As I watched them zip around the course, I recalled how, last summer, I went to watch one of the midweek races and thought wistfully how amazing it would be to do that. Less than a year later, and less than a year after I started cycling again, I had done my first crit.

Maybe it seems overly sentimental to write about participating in an informal midweek race, but I learned a lesson that day that has nothing to do with cycling: even if I had come in dead last that day, I would have still been ahead of not starting the race. Racing sports only ever have one winner, but there is a reward for pinning the numbers on, lining up at the start line, and suffering beyond money or trophies or fitness or health–the value of starting something that’s difficult and finishing it.