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The Trouble with Tracey

One year ago she burned to death in her shopping cart. What's been done to save the next Tracey from a similar fate?

Monte Paulsen 18 Dec

Monte Paulsen reports on housing and homelessness for The Tyee. This report is part of the ongoing series, Homeless Report Cart 2010.

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Tracey died in this cart on Dec. 19, 2008.

Dawn Amanda Bergman burned to death one year ago tonight. The man who called 911 said he could see her sitting upright as flames engulfed the shopping cart she called home.

"Tracey" was Bergman's street name. And within days of her fiery death, Tracey had become a posthumous poster child for Vancouver's vexing hoards of homeless. The mayor and the minister invoked her nom de guerre as they opened new shelters and passed a law to compel the homeless to use them.

In life, Tracey was a troubled soul. Her mental health challenges were evident, even to strangers she cheerily panhandled at the 7-Eleven store on Davie Street. She never learned to control her emotions, or her drug use.

In death, the trouble with Tracey -- and thousands like her -- is that those challenges continue to be misdiagnosed as housing problems.

"For people like Tracey, homelessness isn't so much about a lack of housing," said Nancy Hall, B.C.'s former mental health advocate. "It's about a lack of mental health care."

A cozy nest, a deadly gift

The temperature dipped to 10 degrees below zero (Celsius) on the night of Dec. 18, 2008. The city was blanketed in deep snow. An "extreme weather alert" had been declared and outreach workers were combing the West End for homeless in distress. They found Tracey's cart parked on Davie Street, near Hornby. Tracey was tucked inside.

"She had quite the setup," said Ellen Silvergieter, who directs the advocacy office at St. Paul's Anglican Church. "Her cart had cardboard on the sides to block the wind. She had blankets and tarps all rigged up. She'd made quite a little nest for herself, all right there in her cart."

The outreach team offered to take Tracey to a shelter. She declined, as she had done many times before.

"Shelters are... well, they're pretty scary places for a woman on her own," Silvergieter explained. "People get robbed. People get raped. Maybe something happened to Tracey. I don't know."

The St. Paul's team gave her some hot chocolate, a heavy coat, and a plush quilt.

"It had been my quilt," Silvergieter mused. "I'd brought it in a couple days before. It had mauve and blue flowers on a felt background. It was really warm."

Tracey asked if they would bring her some more candles. The outreach worker declined.

"We didn't think candles in the cart was such a great idea," Silvergieter said. "She got candles from someone, though. I'm sure it was well-intentioned, but it was a deadly gift nonetheless."

Crying inside her cart

The Vancouver Police Department also checked on Tracey that fateful night.

"Officers offered to assist her in finding shelter off the street," reported Coroner Kate Corcoran, who investigated Bergman's death for the B.C. Coroner's Office. "However, she refused, stating shelters around Vancouver did not allow for carts. She stated she was warm and refused extra blankets; was angry at being woken up and wanted to be left alone."

Police can force the homeless into shelters if they are under-age, intoxicated, or in "imminent danger." Bergman, 46, was described by police as "coherent, able to make decisions and to answer questions directed her way," according to the coroner's report.

"She was checked three times, owing to reports of someone crying inside her shelter," Corcoran wrote. "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."

The 911 call came at 4:28 the next morning. The caller reported a "fully involved fire" and stated "he could see a body sitting upright in the flames, arms at their side and knees slightly bent."

The autopsy found high levels of carbon monoxide in Bergman's body, along with low levels of cocaine.

"Given there were no signs that Ms. Bergman made any attempt to escape the blaze, it is likely that as she slept, the burning candles came in contact with material that smoldered for a period of time, leading to a significant level of carbon monoxide," which "could have impaired the brain's ability to react."

Smoke inhalation and thermal injury were listed as the cause of death.

A homeless death every 12 days

Tracey was hardly the only homeless person to die last year. She wasn't even the only high-profile homeless death. Darrell Mickasko burned to death the previous winter while trying to warm himself with a Coleman stove. And Curtis Brick died of heat exposure at an East Vancouver park during an exceptionally hot day last July.

All told, the B.C. Coroner's Service counted 32 homeless deaths in 2006, another 34 in 2007 and 30 in 2008, according to a report provided to The Tyee.

The average age at death was 45 years. The leading causes of death were disease, drug poisoning, blunt injuries, hanging and drowning.

For the purposes of these statistics, an individual was considered homeless if they were living on the streets, staying at an emergency shelter, or being provided temporary (30 days or less) shelter by friends or family. Individuals living in long-term shelters were excluded, as was anyone couch-surfing for more than a month.

By this definition, an average of 32 homeless British Columbians die each year. That translates to a dead homeless person every 12 days.

'Exactly what we had on the night Tracey died'

Coincidence catapulted Tracey into the political spotlight. She happened to die just blocks away from where a new mayor was preparing a new homeless shelter. And she died on the day before it opened.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was elected on a promise to end street homelessness by 2015, told Vancouver media that he was "horrified" to hear of Tracey's death.

"It's a great tragedy for the city, it's a great tragedy for all of us here in the community who have been working hard to right a terrible wrong in our city," Robertson told reporters.

Robertson opened several new homeless shelters during his first few months in office. The first two were in the Downtown Eastside. The third, at 1435 Granville Street, opened on Dec. 20. Some were even set up with places where clients like Tracey were able to securely stow their shopping carts.

But the Granville Street shelter was closed on July 1, in response to complaints from nearby residents. It has yet to be replaced.

"We have tonight exactly what we had on the night Tracey died," Silvergieter complained.

"The only shelter in this area is First Baptist. And that's only open on Tuesday nights, unless a weather emergency is declared," the West End advocate continued.

"Tracey wouldn't have gone to the Downtown Eastside" where several other shelters remain open. "That's why she was living up here."

Earlier this week, the city allotted $500,000 to set up another four shelters. With $1.2 million in operating funds from the province, Vancouver hopes to provide another 140 shelter beds for the winter.

"I think we could get some open by Christmas," Coun. Kerry Jang said.

"I don't know if it will be enough," Jang added. "Honestly, I don't think it will be. I think that we're going to see a high number of turn-aways, like we did last year."

Would new police 'tool' have killed Tracey?

Housing Minister Rich Coleman has invoked Tracey's story repeatedly in the year since her death. Coleman, a former RCMP officer, felt for the police officers who were unable to bring her inside.

"With this Tracey situation," he told The Tyee in September, "there was actually a police officer who knew there was a shelter bed, and couldn't get her to go... who is now living with the fact that that person died overnight on their watch."

Coleman concluded that police needed better "tools" to deal with situations like Tracey's, and he brought forward the controversial Assistance to Shelter Act, which empowers officers to take homeless people to shelters during periods of extreme cold or wet weather.

Activists dubbed it the "Kidnap the Homeless Act," and speculated it will be used as a way to sweep homeless people off the streets during the 2010 Winter Games. Hundreds marched through the Downtown Eastside last weekend in protest.

The Vancouver Police Department has elected to use the act lightly. A new policy instructs constables to "state their authority under the Assistance to Shelter Act," but refrain from anything more than "non-forceful touching" to compel cooperation.

"If met with more than passive resistance, the member shall not escalate to a higher level of force but instead shall disengage and release the person," the policy states.

Silvergieter supported Vancouver's decision not to fully enforce the new law.

"Tracey likely would have frozen to death as a result of being moved by the police," she said.

"Even if she stayed in the shelter that night -- which I doubt -- she'd have come back to the street within a day or two. But she'd have no cart, no quilt, no tarp... so by 'saving' her life on that one night, they may well have killed her a few nights later."

A generation without treatment

Nancy Hall said B.C. is now home to "a generation of people without treatment" who are now too disabled to avail themselves of the type of homeless housing on offer from the province.

"We have some very, very disabled people who've been untreated for many years," Hall told The Tyee.

"For many of these people, prior contact with police or shelters or even outreach workers has led to them being brought to a hospital... where they've been forcibly medicated and restrained," Hall explained. "So they've learned to think of a hospital as a place to avoid. And they avoid anything they think might lead back to that hospital."

Tracey appears to have been one of these. Government records indicate she had successfully navigated and was receiving social support at the time of her death, but that she had not requested shelter support or sought placement in social housing.

Hall suggested that as a result of the investments made by BC Housing in the past couple years, many of the homeless who were merely down on their luck or perhaps just hitting bottom in some addiction have found housing.

"I think if you look at who's still on the street -- and we're talking about more than a thousand people here in Vancouver -- you'll see that the people who remain have significant mental health issues that are not being treated," Hall said.

The woman who served as B.C.'s first Mental Health Advocate suggested that the province is facing a mental health emergency.

"I don't think what happened to Tracey is really all that different than if you denied a cardiac patient care, and then they had a massive stroke," Hall said.

"If you had earlier on treated their high blood pressure, and helped them with diet and exercise, the massive stroke would have been avoided," she explained. "And if early on in life Tracey had been noted to have a mental illness, and if she'd received appropriate care, this might never have happened."  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics, Housing

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