'A delicate balance': Death in Tim Hortons raises dilemma of when to wake a person sleeping on the street

Advocates and people who live on the street say the decision needs to be considered with compassion and care.

Homeless people and advocates say it's an act that must be approached with compassion and care

A 74-year-old man named Ted was found slumped at this Tim Hortons at 865 West Broadway in Vancouver. The B.C. Coroners Service confirmed he died at the restaurant. (Michelle Ghoussoub/CBC)

When an elderly homeless man died in a Vancouver Tim Hortons last week, it took hours before he was noticed.

Witnesses say Ted — whose last name is unknown — was 74 and well known in the area. He was slumped at his favourite corner table when someone alerted staff who called 911.

"That kind of bothers me," said his friend John Gingham, who sleeps outside the same Tim Hortons restaurant every night.

"It makes me feel like there's no compassion."

Ted's death highlights the dilemma of how, and when, to approach a homeless person who may appear to be unresponsive. Advocates and people who live on the street say it's a decision that needs to be considered with compassion and care. 

Many people fear approaching a homeless person, while others are concerned about being disrespectful. For others, walking past a person lying on the street may feel cold. But longtime homeless advocate Judy Graves said that often that's exactly what you should do.

"For the most part, that's the right response — but you need to know when it isn't," she said.

'Why are you touching me'

Graves said many people who check up on the homeless do so out of compassion. But she said that on the street, where uninterrupted sleep is "precious," it's often an unwelcome invasion of privacy.

Sitting on the corner of Cambie and Broadway in Vancouver,  54-year-old Sean Reid, who is homeless, said it's a "very delicate line."

"I've been woken up quite violently by people. Lots of homeless people — we don't like to be touched too much. Everything we have is on us. It's like, 'Whoa, what are you doing buddy? Why are you touching me?'"

Stanley Woodvine, a writer who is homeless, and who wrote the original story about Ted's death, said touching a sleeping person is rarely the right approach.

"A lot of homeless people will wake up defensively aggressive," he said.

"Nobody likes to be startled awake, and homeless people are extra-conscious of this, because they don't know if someone is going to steal from them."

An overnight camper sleeps in the doorway of an Ugg's Boot store along Robson Street in Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

Friends of Ted said it was not uncommon to spot him sleeping at his table in the Tim Hortons, which may be why it took so long for staff and restaurant-goers to notice that something was wrong.

Woodvine said a passerby became alarmed when they noticed the slumped position that he was in.

Graves said the position that someone is sleeping in is a key indicator of whether they may be in distress.

"They should be sleeping in a position like a seven-year-old would be. If the position is odd, then you want to check it out a little bit more closely," she said.

"I would go down to the foot end of the person and start calling to them. Say, "Hey friend! Hey friend! Wake up and talk to me!' That's usually enough to get them to twitch or to move a little bit or to turn away from you — or they may be very cranky. And all of those things are good."

Graves said that if you get no response, try toggling their foot with your own. If they still don't move, call 911.

She said it's also important to pay special attention on days when the weather is particularly hot or cold.

John Gingham said this particular nook at Tim Hortons was Ted's favourite table. (Michelle Ghoussoub/CBC)

Unlearning fear

Graves, who said she's woken up "hundreds" of people sleeping on Vancouver's streets, said the one time she was hurt was when she shook a man by his shoulder, causing him to lunge out with his arm. He inadvertently hit her in the stomach, leaving her winded.

"He was terrified, I was terrified, and we just sat there looking at each other. So I learned from him: don't touch," she said.

Graves said many people are fearful of homeless people — a lesson often taught in childhood and carried throughout life.

"Everybody's mother tells them be careful, don't talk to strangers. But by the time we're about 15, it's time to start growing out of that," she said.

"It's good advice for children. That's not good advice for adults."

With files from Alex Migdal

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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