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

799px-Battalion-Park-Szmurlo

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.